Kyle Busch

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.

NASCAR: Rain washes out NASCAR race at Bristol until Monday

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BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — NASCAR has postponed the Monster Energy Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway because of heavy rain that is not expected to let up on Sunday.

The race was pushed until Monday at 1 p.m.

Weather has been a problem all weekend at Bristol, where Friday qualifications were washed out. On Saturday, the Xfinity Series race had a lengthy stoppage for rain.

Cup points leader Kyle Busch will start on the pole next to Chase Elliott.

Bristol officials this year applied a VHT resin to the track surface that is intended to enhance grip. But the nonstop rain has washed away most of the tire rubber accumulated through three practice sessions.

It’s unclear if both the preferred bottom lane and top line will work on Monday. If only one lane works, it could turn into a throwback Bristol race in which bumping is the only way to pass a car.

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Kyle Busch had two wins and entered the spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway leading the points standings a year ago. Kevin Harvick had a victory and was third. Denny Hamlin kicked off the season with a victory at the Daytona 500 and was eighth.

This season, they share another common bond – a surprising zero wins as the Cup calendar turns to Bristol.

Rain forced postponement of the Food City 500 to 1 p.m. ET on Monday, meaning those three will have to wait another day to secure their first victory of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season.

“We’ve just thrown away points, if points matter, week in and week out,” Busch said earlier this month in Martinsville, Va., after one of only two top-five finishes over the first seven races. “We’ve just got to somehow get our luck better.  I don’t know what it is that just keeps knocking us back that we don’t have things kind of go our way, but they just haven’t been going our way, so we’ve just got to keep plugging along until they do.”

Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch’s team, piled up 12 victories last season and pushed Toyota toward its first manufacturer title at NASCAR’s premier level. But the team has yet to win through the first seven races.

“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,” Hamlin said earlier this month, per The Associated Press. “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.”

There also have been some surprise winners this year – with Kurt Busch at the Daytona 500 after several other would-be victors ran out of fuel, and Ryan Newman at Phoenix Raceway on a late pit stop strategy. It was Newman’s first win since July 2013.

Kyle Busch enters Monday’s race seventh in the standings and Hamlin – who clings to the 16th slot – would be the only other JGR driver to make NASCAR’s 16-driver postseason as of Sunday.

Former champion Matt Kenseth, who has JGR’s only other top-five finish this season, is 22nd in the standings, one spot ahead of JGR rookie Daniel Suarez, who was promoted to Cup earlier than expected when Carl Edwards left the team in the offseason.

All four JGR drivers (Busch, Hamlin, Kenseth and Edwards) made the playoff last season and each survived to the round of eight. Jimmie Johnson edged Busch, Edwards and Joey Logano for his record-tying seventh title, in the four-driver finale in November.

Besides the JGR drivers, Team Penske’s Logano and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Harvick also made the round of eight last postseason and each are still searching for their first win of this season. Johnson (Texas Motor Speedway on April 9) and Kurt Busch (Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 26) are the only active drivers who made the round of eight in 2016 to win so far this year.

Harvick has won here twice, including the last time Cup raced here, in August.

“It’s really just a matter (of) putting a weekend together,” Harvick said. “It’s really no different than any other racetrack. This business is hard to be successful at and sometimes you go through years where short tracks are good and some years not so good. … I enjoy the short tracks because we don’t get to go to quite as many as I think we’d all like.”

NASCAR: Larson starts on pole with Bristol qualifying rained out

BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — Kyle Larson will start on the pole on points because rain washed out qualifying at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Larson won at Fontana from the pole in the No. 42 Chevrolet and started first a week later at Martinsville. He has five top-two finishes in just seven NASCAR races this season.

Chase Elliott joins Larson on the front row of Sunday’s race. Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano round out the top five.

The Cup series returns after its first off week of the season.

NASCAR scrapped qualifying Friday because of the rain that hit that track and could be a problem all weekend. The field is set by owner points.

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BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — Joe Gibbs Racing had three victories at this point last season, including back-to-back wins by Kyle Busch. Then Carl Edwards reeled off consecutive victories and the organization was easily the best in NASCAR.

Now? The team is winless through the first seven races of the season and looking to break the drought at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I would have to say that obviously we’re not as strong this year out of the gate,” Busch said Friday. “I feel as though we’re competitive and we’re close, but we’re not there. I don’t think there’s any reason for cause for concern yet.”

The speed chart Friday indicated JGR may be on the right track.

Toyota drivers took five of the first six spots in practice, three from JGR and two from sister team Furniture Row Racing. Denny Hamlin and Busch had the best 10 consecutive lap averages, the true indicator of who has the strongest cars.

It was an important showing because the weather forecast for Bristol this weekend calls for rain and no one is certain when the cars will next be on track. So most of the field treated Friday as if it was their only time to prepare for Sunday’s race.

Qualifying was canceled because of early rain at the track, and the field was set by points. It gave Kyle Larson the pole with Chase Elliott right next to him. The JGR cars will start seventh (Busch), 16th (Hamlin), 22nd (Matt Kenseth) and 23rd (Daniel Suarez).

Busch is a five-time winner at Bristol, but hasn’t been to victory lane in his Cup car since 2011. He thinks the drop-off is a combination of changing track conditions, team issues or unexpected failures.

“A couple other runs that we’ve had here we’ve been OK, maybe third or fourth, and I try something and I lose the nose,” he said. “It’s just been frustrating the last few times of coming here and not really having the speed in order to run up in the lead and lead a lot of laps like I used to. … We were pretty dominant force and that’s kind of gone away and it would be nice to get those days back in the 18 camp.”

He’ll certainly have competition. He listed Larson, Elliott, and Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano as the biggest threats, but noted that he goes into the race certain he will be the victor.

“There are a few races track I go to where I would say there’s nothing acceptable except winning,” he said. “Bristol, this is one of my best wheelhouses and I really enjoy coming here. There’s also going to be the Kyle Larsons that come to Bristol and nothing is going to be acceptable except winning for them, too.

“That’s why the competition is tough because there’s five guys, maybe even seven guys that can walk in here this weekend thinking this is our weekend to get a win. We have to fight those guys in order to go out there and get the win for ourselves.”

Larson, the points leader, loves his chances. He’s already got one win this season and his front-row starting spot has him certain he can have a strong race.

“It’s nice to be the point leader and be starting up front, I always race really well here,” he said. “I just don’t qualify well.”

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

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 teams can struggle without crew chiefs, the key communicators

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)   —-    MARTINSVILLE, Va. — With NASCAR showing a greater propensity to suspend crew chiefs after violations, teams are operating under the reality that their at-track leaders might miss the most important hours of the race week – the actual competition.

Some of the sport’s leading teams have dealt with that issue this year and in recent seasons, and the results have been mixed. Kurt Busch won at Pocono Raceway last June when team engineer Johnny Klausmeier filled in for suspended crew chief Tony Gibson. Other teams have scrambled with replacements, and most drivers say communication typically suffers when substitute crew chiefs are in place.

“That communication is still going to be there; it’s just going to be distant,” said driver Joey Logano. “It’s going to be harder to communicate. A lot of times you can say something on the phone or in person, and it’s a lot different with your body language.

“I think that’s a definite big challenge. It seems like these days teams are really strong and have a lot of depth and can overcome that for a certain amount of time. [But] I think if it’s a really long time it will gradually eat away at you. I think for a few weeks a lot of teams can handle it well.”

Brad Keselowski, Logano’s Team Penske teammate, produced a clear illustration of the value of the crew chief Sunday as he and Paul Wolfe teamed to win the STP 500, their second victory of the season.

Wolfe was suspended three races because of violations at Phoenix Raceway two weeks ago, and Brian Wilson filled in as interim crew chief two races ago at Fontana, Calif. But the Penske organization decided to appeal, and Wolfe returned to the team pit wagon at Martinsville. Wolfe is expected to continue to work at the track until a final ruling.

Former crew chief and current NBC racing analyst Steve Letarte agrees with the “body language” part of the equation, particularly as it relates to practice and the at-track work associated with making the race car fast.

“The biggest difference with a substitute crew chief on Friday (of race weekends) is that you don’t get the emotions of dropping the window net and looking your driver in the eyes when you have a conversation,” Letarte said. “Communication is key, but body language is a big part of communication.”

Driver AJ Allmendinger lost crew chief Randall Burnett for three races because of penalties from the season’s second race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Veteran mechanic Ernie Cope was his replacement.

“Having Randall back is definitely going to help, but I didn’t feel like we were hindered a lot, like that was the reason that we struggled was the fact that just Randall wasn’t there,” Allmendinger said. “You could kind of see back at the shop he was kind of chomping at the bit.”

Suspended crew chiefs aren’t allowed to be on race track property during their suspensions, but they aren’t prevented from communicating with their teams via telephone, Internet or otherwise. So crew chiefs who aren’t at speedway locations tend to know almost as much about conditions at the track as those who are. But the emotional tie is missing.

“It’s a big handicap,” Letarte said. “This is a sport about humans. On top of the pit box, that crew chief has to make gut decisions that there are no right answers to. What your competitors do (in relation to pit stops and strategy) often has more to do with your decision than what you do. Those three or four hours on Sunday afternoon present the biggest handicap to not having your guy there.”

Team owner Roger Penske agrees. “I need him (Wolfe) on that box every weekend,” Penske said. “I told him I’d pay him to be on that box every weekend, not to be sitting in his motorhome looking at a bunch of monitors.”

Rookie driver Daniel Suarez faced the challenge of a crew chief switch last week at Martinsville when veteran Dave Rogers took personal leave from the Joe Gibbs Racing team. Scott Graves, who led Suarez to the Xfinity Series championship last season, is filling in for Rogers, whose leave is indefinite.

This is the first Cup season for Suarez, who is missing Rogers’ in-depth knowledge but is fortunate to be working with a familiar face in Graves.

Suarez had a tough weekend at Martinsville, finishing 32nd after his car was damaged in accidents.

Kyle Busch, Suarez’s veteran teammate, says the loss of Rogers impacts all teams at JGR.

“I think anytime you lose good crew chiefs, you lose a little bit of strength to your company,” Busch said. “I think whenever you lose good drivers, like Carl Edwards (who left the team in the off-season, opening the seat for Suarez), you lose a little bit of strength to your company. We’ve taken two big bullets here for this season — one from Carl, one from Dave.

“We’ve got to recover some of that and get back into the game where we’re the strongest four‑car team out there, like we felt like we were the last couple of years with all of us in place.”

Follow Hembree on Twitter @mikehembree

NASCAR: Untested, repaved Texas track will present challenges to drivers

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)  —-   MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The track itself is likely to be the big story this weekend as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series stops at Texas Motor Speedway for Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.

The 1.5-mile track has been repaved and reconfigured since NASCAR last visited in November, and, as with virtually every speedway repave, the racing is likely to change significantly.

At Texas, the change could be even more dramatic. In addition to repaving the entire racing surface (and pit road), officials also decided to decrease the banking in turns one and two from 24 degrees to 20 and widen the track in that section from 60 to 80 feet. Turns three and four retain their 24-degree banking, giving the racing surface an imbalance from one end to the other.

With no race cars having touched the new surface, the track will be mostly a mystery when drivers open practice Friday. Because of the track changes, NASCAR has added an hour of practice to the Friday schedule.

“I thought it was interesting that they added only an extra hour at a repave,” driver Jamie McMurray said. “I’m shocked that we don’t get a whole day of testing for getting the car set up. That’s not even as important as getting some rubber on the track and a lot of cars out there.”

Goodyear, which supplies all tires in NASCAR’s top three series, has not run tests on the new surface because there was not enough time between the completion of the resurfacing and race week. The tire company plans to use the compound used at the recently repaved Kentucky Speedway — also a 1.5-mile track — at Texas.

Cup drivers are scheduled to practice for two hours and 25 minutes Friday and one hour and 45 minutes Saturday. Xfinity Series drivers will have two hours and 20 minutes of practice Friday before their scheduled race Saturday afternoon.

“I don’t think anyone knows what to expect,” McMurray said. “We’ve had quite a few repaves in the past six to eight years. Each time they’ve done a repave, it’s gotten a little better. I remember when they did some tracks years ago you couldn’t even make a lap when you got to a test.”

Most drivers favor tracks with older surfaces because they can manhandle and maneuver their cars with more authority. Atlanta Motor Speedway planned to repave its 1.5-mile racing surface this year after its March 5 race but bowed to drivers’ wishes that the repaving be delayed for a year.

Kyle Busch, who has 13 combined wins in NASCAR’s top three series at Fort Worth oval (two in Cup, eight in Xfinity and three in the Camping World Truck Series) said Texas Motor Speedway will be a new animal.

“To me those are the absolute worst race tracks we can ever go to,” he said. “I hate repaves, but it’s a part of our schedule. It’s a part of our sport. Five years from now, six years from now, it’s going to be great.

“Right out of the gate, going there, trying to put rubber down, it’s slick, man. It’s so treacherous, hard to get ahold of, hard to understand what you’re feeling with your car. You can think you’re tight, you got all the grip in the world, you’re going around the corner, then boom, it just busts loose right out from under you with no warning.”

Denny Hamlin said the changes in turns one and two will add a new element.

“It’s going to be a race track that will be different from any mile‑and‑a‑half that we run at,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I just hope the groove widens out to where we can race there side by side. That will be the challenge, and that’s always the challenge with new paved race tracks.”

After going winless through the season’s first six races, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing will be under pressure to break through at Texas. Brad Keselowski won at Martinsville Speedway Sunday, becoming the first driver with more than one win this season.

NASCAR: Blaney’s strong start should earn him attention

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It’s time to pay attention to Ryan Blaney, the second-year NASCAR driver who is as close to a throwback as fans are going to get from this current crop of talent.

He’s a second-generation Cup driver, North Carolina raised, and prefers Bill Elliott T-shirts and Talladega 500 hats to anything hip and trendy.

More important, Blaney is pretty good behind the wheel of a race car and has proven through the first six races of this season that he won’t bow down to the stars of the sport. His 25th-place finish Sunday at Martinsville Speedway tells next to nothing about his race, where he ran inside the top 10 for a large portion of the day and scored points in the first two stages.

But he also mixed it up on the track with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, and had yet another run-in with Dale Earnhardt Jr. It was the second time in three weeks the two tangled on the track, and Earnhardt hit decline on his cellphone when Blaney called to discuss the incident after Sunday’s race.

“Too soon ol boy,” Earnhardt wrote on Twitter .

Blaney lives on land that Earnhardt’s owns, and he landed in the doghouse when he used an expletive on his team radio about NASCAR’s most popular driver. He atoned for it by giving Earnhardt’s wife flowers the next week, and vowing to bring the beer the next time Blaney hangs out with Earnhardt.

Earnhardt chuckled Sunday when the two had contact yet again .

Johnson found nothing funny about how hard Blaney raced him, and grumbled on his radio about the 23-year-old.

But Blaney, at least on his team radio, doesn’t back down and is adamant he can hold his own on the track. His results this year have gotten him noticed — he was second in the Daytona 500, seventh at Las Vegas and ninth at California — and he currently sits seventh in the point standings.

Blaney is theoretically a Team Penske driver, although he’s farmed out to The Wood Brothers and pilots the iconic No. 21 Ford. The relationship has returned that car to prominence, and has Blaney closing in on his first career Cup victory. If looking for a new favorite driver, Blaney is the one to back before it becomes the cool thing to do.

JIMMIE JOHNSON

He’s off to the worst start of his storied career. He’s yet to score a top-five finish this year, and the reigning NASCAR champion has never before gone four races into the season without cracking that mark. He finished 15th on Sunday at Martinsville, where he should have been among the contenders. A nine-time winner at the Virginia track, his victory there last fall was the springboard to his record-tying seventh title.

There was tension on his team radio, too, as he bickered with crew chief Chad Knaus midway through the race. Johnson was angry with Blaney and Kyle Larson, and racing harder than Knaus would have liked. So Knaus told him to take care of his car, to which Johnson complained he received mixed messages and thought he’d been encouraged to “handle (Blaney) on the track.”

It’s far too early to panic about Johnson’s slow start, and important to remember that Hendrick Motorsports was off much of last year until gains were made that propelled Johnson to the title. But, it’s interesting that his seventh title has created somewhat of a hangover effect at the start of this year.

RICKY STENHOUSE JR.

He brazenly moved Kyle Busch out of his way Sunday at Martinsville to stay on the lead lap, and it led to his first career top-10 finish at the track.

That’s almost a win for Stenhouse, who was also fourth earlier this month at Phoenix.

Although he’s only 20th in the standings, Stenhouse has a pair of top-10 finishes to open the season and he only had a grand total of six of them last year. It comes as Roush Fenway Racing has retracted to two Cup cars, and Stenhouse desperately needs strong finishes to help the struggling team attract new sponsorship.

He may be best known as the boyfriend of Danica Patrick, but Stenhouse is slowly starting to earn his own recognition on the race track.

DANICA PATRICK

Her 17th-place finish at Atlanta is her best so far this year, and she found herself in the middle of several incidents at Martinsville. She blamed one on good friend Denny Hamlin, and wondered on her radio why he continues to wreck her.

But the bigger story concerning Patrick came late Saturday night when she used her social media channels to intimate she and Stenhouse had gotten engaged . It was an April Fool’s joke, but one she didn’t claim until early Sunday when she again used social media to poke fun at those who believed the post and take life too seriously.

It was a strange move for the business-savvy Patrick, who has built a career through proper messaging and marketing. It also comes at a time when she’s got sponsorship problems because Stewart-Haas Racing is locked into a legal battle with Nature’s Bakery over unpaid bills.

Patrick has said she wants to get married, she’d consider having children and she just turned 35. It could very well be that Patrick’s getting closer and closer to a role that doesn’t include racing cars.

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

NASCAR: Keselowski pulls away and wins at Martinsville

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Brad Keselowski had sampled success at Martinsville Speedway, but had never put everything together to get to Victory Lane.

He changed that on Sunday, passing Kyle Busch with 43 laps to go and pulling away to win for the 23rd time in his career.

“It felt like we were due, and if you ever can be, this is one of those tracks and today was one of those days where we persevered in a special way,” Keselowski said.

“The battle there with Kyle at the end was a lot of fun to be a part of. I hope it was a lot of fun to watch.”

The victory came in team owner Roger Penske’s 1,000th start in NASCAR’s top series, and gave Ford its first victory on NASCAR’s oldest and smallest track since 2002. It also made Keselowski the first two-time winner this season, and was his fifth consecutive top-five finish.

“This is one I’m never going to forget,” said Keselowski, who had been the runner-up twice in the past four races here.

Keselowski or Busch led the last 160 laps and swapped the lead several times during a green flag run that began with 64 laps to go.

Keselowski had the lead coming out of the 14th and final caution, but Busch quickly slipped underneath him to go back in front. Keselowski stalked him for 14 laps, the nose of his Ford inches from the rear bumper of Busch’s Toyota.

When he finally got around Busch again, he gradually pulled away, opening a lead of nearly two seconds as Busch’s car, dominant for much of the day, faded. The lead paid off at the end when Keselowski had to navigate around lapped traffic. He won by 1.8 seconds.

“All we did was put four tires on, and when we did, it went to junk,” Busch said of his car. “I hate it for our guys. They’ve deserved all year better finishes than what we’ve been able to produce, and here’s another one today. Just frustrating season so far.”

Busch led a race-high 274 laps and finished second, followed by Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Austin Dillon.

It was the first time NASCAR tried its new stage racing on a short track, and it provided some excitement.

Martin Truex Jr. won the first stage in a three-lap sprint that featured lots of banging as drivers jostled to make the point-scoring top 10.

Elliott won stage two when Ricky Stenhouse Jr., trying to get back on the lead lap, nudged Busch on the final lap of the stage, getting Busch just loose enough for Elliott to slide underneath him to score the regular season points and coveted playoff point.

Busch said he has no problem with being bumped, as long as Stenhouse knows to expect the same treatment in reverse.

“I actually was rolling into Turn 3 and was kind of going higher out of the way and was going to let (Stenhouse) back by and give him the lap,” Busch said.

“That was my intent, and then he just drove through me and cost me my spot to (Elliott). I was trying to be a nice guy.”

POINTS

Even as the only multiple winner this year, and with five consecutive top-five finishes, Keselowski is just fourth in points. Kyle Larson, who finished 17th, leads by four over Elliott, and Truex is third, another 28 points behind. Keselowski trails Truex by just two points.

BABY STEPS

Elliott insisted all weekend that he struggles mightily at Martinsville, but his performance for the weekend suggested he’s figuring it out.

He won Saturday’s truck series race and got a playoff point in the second stage Sunday on his way to the third-place finish.

“I hope that it wasn’t just a fluke deal and we didn’t just get lucky today and run good,” he said.

SHORT DAY

Jamie McMurray arrived with a streak of five straight top-10 finishes and hopes of finally breaking through at Martinsville.

Instead, he took a chance not fixing a tire rub under a green flag and crashed out after just 105 laps.

UP NEXT

The series heads to repaved Texas, where most drivers will get their first look at the new surface in their first practice.

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STP 500 RESULTS

Sunday at the 0.526-mile Martinsville Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (4) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 500 laps, 0 rating, 55 points.

2. (10) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 500, 0, 52.

3. (2) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 500, 0, 50.

4. (5) Joey Logano, Ford, 500, 0, 33.

5. (20) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 500, 0, 34.

6. (30) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 500, 0, 31.

7. (8) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 500, 0, 31.

8. (11) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 500, 0, 29.

9. (25) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 500, 0, 32.

10. (24) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 500, 0, 27.

11. (33) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 500, 0, 26.

12. (15) Erik Jones, Toyota, 500, 0, 28.

13. (16) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 500, 0, 26.

14. (13) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 500, 0, 24.

15. (17) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 500, 0, 32.

16. (3) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 500, 0, 31.

17. (1) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 500, 0, 25.

18. (18) Aric Almirola, Ford, 500, 0, 19.

19. (22) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 500, 0, 18.

20. (9) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 500, 0, 17.

21. (31) Cole Whitt, Ford, 499, 0, 16.

22. (23) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 499, 0, 15.

23. (29) Danica Patrick, Ford, 499, 0, 14.

24. (34) David Ragan, Ford, 498, 0, 13.

25. (7) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 498, 0, 22.

26. (26) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 497, 0, 11.

27. (27) Landon Cassill, Ford, 497, 0, 10.

28. (35) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 496, 0, 9.

29. (37) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, 495, 0, 8.

30. (12) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 493, 0, 16.

31. (32) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 492, 0, 6.

32. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 489, 0, 5.

33. (38) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, 486, 0, 0.

34. (21) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, accident, 418, 0, 8.

35. (28) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, accident, 401, 0, 2.

36. (36) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, accident, 385, 0, 1.

37. (14) Kurt Busch, Ford, accident, 295, 0, 1.

38. (6) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, accident, 105, 0, 1.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 70.142 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 44 minutes, 59 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 1.806 seconds.

Caution Flags: 14 for 95 laps.

Lead Changes: 18 among 7 drivers.

Lap Leaders: K.Larson 1-23; B.Keselowski 24-71; J.Logano 72; M.Truex 73-88; D.Hamlin 89-108; Ky.Busch 109; M.Truex 110-135; Ky.Busch 136-144; C.Elliott 145-151; Ky.Busch 152-259; C.Elliott 260-272; Ky.Busch 273-336; D.Hamlin 337-340; Ky.Busch 341-405; B.Keselowski 406-415; Ky.Busch 416-428; B.Keselowski 429-443; Ky.Busch 444-457; B.Keselowski 458-500

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): Ky.Busch, 7 times for 267 laps; B.Keselowski, 4 times for 112 laps; M.Truex, 2 times for 40 laps; D.Hamlin, 2 times for 22 laps; K.Larson, 1 time for 22 laps; C.Elliott, 2 times for 18 laps; J.Logano, 1 time for 0 laps.

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

Top 16 in Points: 1. K.Larson, 268; 2. C.Elliott, 264; 3. M.Truex, 236; 4. B.Keselowski, 234; 5. J.Logano, 207; 6. Ky.Busch, 188; 7. R.Blaney, 179; 8. C.Bowyer, 174; 9. J.McMurray, 163; 10. K.Harvick, 154; 11. R.Newman, 152; 12. K.Kahne, 146; 13. E.Jones, 144; 14. J.Johnson, 141; 15. T.Bayne, 140; 16. D.Hamlin, 139.

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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Daniel Suarez embracing twin challenges as top-level NASCAR driver

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)   —-   Daniel Suarez’s opportunity at NASCAR’s top level came quickly and by surprise. So did the corresponding role as pitchman.

Replacing Carl Edwards in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 Toyota this season was difficult enough, even after the product of Monterrey, Mexico, won the developmental Xfinity Series championship last season.

The race cars are different, but the principles the same as he attempted to replace the 37-year-old Edwards following his unexpected decision to leave the team this offseason. Following as a spokesperson for Subway would require more and a different kind of skill set, but Suarez, 25, was pleased with the results following the airing of his first national commercial for the sandwich shop last weekend.

“That part has been difficult, but I keep learning,” said Suarez, who raced with a Subway-themed car for the first of four times last week at Auto Club Speedway. “After this commercial, I guess it’s been good. I’m still learning about it, how to do better.”

Suarez did versions of the commercial in English and Spanish, with the finished product more like a hype video than a shill for a product. There was no smiling consumption of a sandwich, but Suarez introducing himself to the sponsorship as a video of himself racing played in the background. Edwards had a cameo.

“I spent a lot of ours trying to do my lines right in English,” Suarez joked. “In Spanish I took 10 minutes. I was going to feel bad if it wasn’t that way.”

Suarez’s work-study program at NASCAR’s highest level — he had not so much as tested a Cup car before Edwards’ move — took another turn on Wednesday when JGR announced that crew chief Dave Rogers had left his role indefinitely and would be replaced by Scott Graves. This change, at least, could provide some familiarity, as Graves was Suarez’s crew chief during his championship run last season.

Suarez’s first five races Cup races have, as expected, been challenging, especially given the relative struggles of JGR, which won 15 races last season but is winless so far. The team began a four-race win streak with a Kyle Busch victory last season at Martinsville Speedway, the site of Sunday’s race.

After finishing no better than 20th in the first three races, Suarez finished seventh in consecutive races at one-mile Phoenix Raceway and 2-mile Auto Club Speedway to perhaps establish a beach head into the spring. Although Edwards had made himself available as a mentor for Suarez, Busch has taken on a prominent role in answering inevitable questions.

“It’s been good. Kyle has helped me with a lot of stuff in the race shop,” Suarez said. “I’m trying to learn from everything. There is some room for improvement still, but we can be where we want to be.”

NASCAR: NASCAR off to a fast start, but ratings still sink

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Bad news first: The overnight television ratings for NASCAR’s race in California were down. The ratings were down for Phoenix, Las Vegas and Atlanta, too. Basically, nothing NASCAR does can stop this slide, it seems.

So what’s the good news?

Well, NASCAR really couldn’t have asked for a better start to its season.

Five drivers won the first five races. The lead changed in the waning laps each time.

Kyle Busch got into a fight on pit road that left him with a bloody gash on his forehead — generating all sorts of mainstream attention — and nobody was punished. Similarly, Austin Dillon avoided any penalty when he wrecked Cole Custer in retaliation.

Danica Patrick, for one, argued NASCAR did the right thing by withholding heavy-handed punishments.

“It makes for good TV,” she said, “and we handle it on the track ourselves.”

Professional partier — oh, and NFL star — Rob Gronkowski was the main attraction at the season-opening Daytona 500, and celebrities came out in full force to watch NASCAR on Sunday in Fontana, California. Among the many in attendance were Jada Pinkett Smith, Kaitlin Olson, Dean Cain, Terry Crews, Fred Savage, Scott Eastwood and Justin Hartley, “Kevin/The Manny” from NBC’s hit “This is Us,” who apparently caught NASCAR fever and attended various events over the last few months.

For all the hand-wringing over the ratings slump, NASCAR appears to be headed in the right direction.

Heck, even Clint Bowyer, one of the largest personalities in the series, is emerging from his lengthy slump. He finished third Sunday and wrote on Twitter: “first time in a long time I grabbed the bottle of Jack in the plane for the right reason.” Trust us, a happy Bowyer is good for everyone in NASCAR.

There’s parity among the manufacturers — Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota all have wins this season — and the younger drivers have found themselves in the mix every week. Kyle Larson, victorious Sunday, in theory could have five wins already this season. He ran out of gas while leading the Daytona 500, notched three consecutive runner-up finishes, then finally finished first at Fontana after several nail-biting restarts.

But the bad news always comes on Monday, when the TV numbers are released. The ratings become the main focus of the sport: Naysayers fixate on decline; excuse-makers trot out all manner of explanations.

How about this? NASCAR, no matter how many story lines or rule changes or celebrities lining the grid, is an underwhelming overall product. Even with its new stage format, events are too long in this day and age of instant gratification — even the NFL recently announced ways it is going to try to shorten games — and the racing itself often isn’t all that exciting until the end.

Another issue is that viewers are essentially being asked to tune in to watch colorful cars go in circles for 500 miles. When the cars themselves become the “stars,” it’s a lot harder to become emotionally invested in the product. It doesn’t help that Jeff Gordon, the sport’s biggest star for more than two decades, is now in the TV booth and Tony Stewart, the man of the people, is also retired.

The people left who need to be embraced are stuffed into cockpits, wearing helmets, and aren’t heard from until the end of the event. Their personalities are hidden, too. It’s so different from, say, the NCAA Tournament, which once a year makes celebrities out of basketball players few have heard of.

Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski has a beard of Bunyanesque proportions that earned its own Twitter account and made him famous over the last two weeks. North Carolina forward Luke Maye hit the shot of his life — the game-winner Sunday over Kentucky to send the Tar Heels to the Final Four — then received a standing ovation when he showed up for his 8 a.m. class back in Chapel Hill on Monday.

Most other sports provide an opportunity for fans to feel the tension, see and hear the emotion, experience the highs and lows of the participants in real time. NASCAR hasn’t found a way to capture that, barring, of course, an angry Busch stomping down pit road at Las Vegas to take a swing at Joey Logano.

That’s as big a problem for NASCAR as the length of its races, its over-saturated 11-month schedule and the constant corporate-speak of its drivers. Figure out a way to show us more — take off the sunglasses, be engaging, give us energy and passion — and then maybe people will start watching again.

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Standings: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

As of: Mar. 27
Rank Driver PV Rank
1 Kyle Larson 6
2 Chase Elliott 4
3 Martin Truex Jr. 7
4 Brad Keselowski 3
5 Joey Logano 5
6 Jamie McMurray 11
7 Ryan Blaney 8
8 Clint Bowyer 13
9 Kevin Harvick 1
10 Kyle Busch 24
11 Ryan Newman 19
12 Denny Hamlin 18

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

NASCAR – Second to none: Kyle Larson hangs on to win at Fontana

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FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — A blistering first in qualifying. A surprising first in the Xfinity Series race.

And a steady, tenacious first when it really mattered on Sunday.

Kyle Larson was second to nobody in his home state.

Larson persevered through four late restarts to win at Fontana, adding his second career victory to his overall Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series points lead.

“Lots of fun to be Kyle Larson right now,” Larson said with a grin. “Our race cars are really fast in Xfinity and Cup, so it’s a blast to show up to the race track every week.”

Larson finished second in each of the last three races, but the Sacramento-area native’s Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was the class of the field at Auto Club Speedway all weekend long.

He claimed the second pole of his career Friday, and he also won the Xfinity race Saturday in a result that surprised him much more than his Cup triumph. The 24-year-old prodigy became just the fourth driver to sweep a race weekend at Fontana.

“Our cars are really good at every race track right now,” Larson said. “I feel like I have a shot to win every time I go to the race track. That’s always a lot of fun. That’s something I’ve always hoped for, to get to a point like that in my NASCAR career. In the past, I had race tracks where I knew I would be good, but right now, we’re going to some tracks that aren’t good for me and running up front. It’s a lot of fun to have that confidence.”

Fontana’s bumpy 2-mile track particularly suits Larson’s skills, and he was unshakable during the late drama and jockeying typical to the five-wide asphalt one hour east of Los Angeles.

After surging up from fourth to first with four new tires before the final caution, he made one last outstanding restart and cruised through two overtime laps to win.

“This is just amazing,” Larson said. “We have been so good all year long, three seconds in a row. I’ve been watching all the TV, like, ‘He doesn’t know how to win.’ But we knew how to win today, so that was good.”

Brad Keselowski was second, and Clint Bowyer came in third for his best finish since June 2015 and his first top-five finish in 52 races. Martin Truex Jr. was fourth after challenging Larson aggressively, and Joey Logano roared up to fifth.

Larson added to his other career victory, which came on NASCAR’s other 2-mile oval at Michigan.

After an early NASCAR season full of dominant cars getting stung at the finish, Larson wasted none of his advantage.

“He’s on a really nice roll, and it takes everything,” said Keselowski, who surged into second after two outstanding late restarts. “This is a sport of speed, execution and luck, and when you’re on a roll like that, you’ve got all three on your side.”

Ganassi credited the win to his young driver’s increasing maturity, along with his fast car, of course. Larson is a former Earnhardt Ganassi Racing development driver who landed with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014, showing steady promise that built to this spectacular season to date.

“I think he’s got a lot of runway, and we don’t even have the engines pulled up yet,” Ganassi said of Larson’s potential. “I think he’s got a long way to go. I have no idea what he’s capable of. Your guess is as good as mine.”

Larson is only the second driver in Fontana history to win from the pole, joining six-time race champion Jimmie Johnson, who did it in 2008. Johnson finished 21st after starting near the back in his backup car.

Johnson, Keselowski and Phoenix winner Ryan Newman all sustained minor damage early on, but Larson was fast from the start.

Larson won the first stage of 60 laps, earning his first stage victory of the season, but lost his lead during a slow stop after getting too close to the wall on pit road. Truex won the second stage, but Larson slipped past him to reclaim the lead on the first lap of the final stage.

The leaders pitted under caution with 20 laps to go, but Truex had his first slow stop all day and slipped five spots down the field to seventh. Larson won the race off pit road and had a fine restart, but Matt Kenseth slid hard into the wall moments later after minor contact with Truex.

Kenseth failed to finish for the third time in five races this season.

After the restart with 12 laps to go, Larson flew past Kyle Busch and built a decent cushion — only to slow again when Cory LaJoie spun out. Larson pitted for tires along with most of the field, while only Hamlin, Truex and McMurray stayed out.

Larson barely got back into the lead before Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun on contact from Roush Fenway Racing teammate Trevor Bayne to force the fourth caution, necessitating overtime. Larson had no problem hanging on.

JUNIOR’S 600

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 16th in his landmark 600th NASCAR start, becoming just the 25th driver to hit the mark. He had to start from the back due to a tire change, and he never really threatened.

STARS COME OUT

The Fontana race compelled its usual eclectic collection of Hollywood celebrities to make the drive. The group included actors Scott Eastwood, Kaitlin Olson, Terry Crews and Eric Stonestreet along with Los Angeles Kings forward Tyler Toffoli and Los Angeles Chargers tight end Antonio Gates.

UP NEXT

The three-race Western swing is over, and NASCAR heads home to Martinsville Speedway, moving from Fontana’s wide 2-mile oval to a half-mile bullring.

___

AUTO CLUB 400 RESULTS

Saturday from the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (1) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 202 laps, 0 rating, 59 points.

2. (3) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 202, 0, 36.

3. (17) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 202, 0, 46.

4. (4) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 202, 0, 52.

5. (35) Joey Logano, Ford, 202, 0, 39.

6. (8) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 202, 0, 43.

7. (10) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 202, 0, 30.

8. (9) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 202, 0, 39.

9. (19) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 202, 0, 30.

10. (13) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 202, 0, 43.

11. (11) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 202, 0, 26.

12. (14) Erik Jones, Toyota, 202, 0, 34.

13. (7) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 202, 0, 24.

14. (2) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 202, 0, 26.

15. (5) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 202, 0, 22.

16. (18) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 202, 0, 21.

17. (24) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 202, 0, 20.

18. (21) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 202, 0, 19.

19. (31) Aric Almirola, Ford, 202, 0, 18.

20. (12) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 202, 0, 17.

21. (37) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 202, 0, 16.

22. (16) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 202, 0, 15.

23. (36) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 202, 0, 14.

24. (15) Kurt Busch, Ford, 201, 0, 13.

25. (20) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 201, 0, 12.

26. (22) Danica Patrick, Ford, 200, 0, 11.

27. (26) Landon Cassill, Ford, 200, 0, 10.

28. (23) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 200, 0, 9.

29. (38) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 200, 0, 8.

30. (30) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 200, 0, 7.

31. (27) David Ragan, Ford, 199, 0, 6.

32. (28) Cole Whitt, Ford, 199, 0, 5.

33. (25) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 198, 0, 4.

34. (29) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 197, 0, 3.

35. (34) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, 193, 0, 0.

36. (6) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, accident, 184, 0, 1.

37. (39) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, accident, 173, 0, 1.

38. (33) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 117, 0, 1.

39. (32) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, engine, 99, 0, 1.

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 136.370 mph.

Time of Race: 2 hours, 57 minutes, 46 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.779 seconds.

Caution Flags: 7 for 29 laps.

Lead Changes: 17 among 8 drivers.

Lap Leaders: K.Larson 1-5; P.Menard 6-7; K.Larson 8-32; C.Elliott 33-34; J.Logano 35; M.Truex 36-47; K.Larson 48-63; M.Truex 64-90; C.Elliott 91-92; M.Truex 93-122; K.Larson 123; M.Truex 124-127; K.Larson 128-155; Ky.Busch 156-162; T.Dillon 163; K.Larson 164-192; D.Hamlin 193-196; K.Larson 197-202

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): K.Larson, 7 times for 103 laps; M.Truex, 4 times for 69 laps; Ky.Busch, 1 time for 6 laps; D.Hamlin, 1 time for 3 laps; C.Elliott, 2 times for 2 laps; P.Menard, 1 time for 1 lap; T.Dillon, 1 time for 0 laps; J.Logano, 1 time for 0 laps.

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

Top 16 in Points: 1. K.Larson, 243; 2. C.Elliott, 214; 3. M.Truex, 205; 4. B.Keselowski, 179; 5. J.Logano, 174; 6. J.McMurray, 162; 7. R.Blaney, 157; 8. C.Bowyer, 143; 9. K.Harvick, 137; 10. Ky.Busch, 136; 11. D.Hamlin, 123; 12. R.Newman, 123; 13. K.Kahne, 122; 14. Ku.Busch, 118; 15. E.Jones, 116; 16. T.Bayne, 114.

NASCAR: Larson holds off Logano, wins Xfinity Series race at Fontana

This gallery contains 2 photos.

FONTANA, Calif. (AP) — Kyle Larson hopes his NASCAR Xfinity race victory will catapult him to a weekend sweep at Fontana.

The way this season is going for the overall Cup series points leader, it’s tough to argue against it.

Larson held off Joey Logano on the final lap to win another Xfinity race dominated by Cup drivers on Saturday.

Larson thrived out of a late restart with smart moves and a clever lane choice on Fontana’s five-wide asphalt. The native Californian won the Xfinity race at Fontana for the second time in his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

“It was a lot of fun with Joey there late,” Larson said. “I hope it gives us some good momentum. We’ll start from the pole and hopefully be here again (Sunday).”

Kyle Busch finished third. Erik Jones was fourth, and rookie William Byron came in fifth.

Larson earned his sixth career Xfinity victory when he kept Logano behind him off a late restart, winning by just over a car length.

Larson is also on the pole for Sunday’s race. He has finished second in three consecutive Cup races, propelling him into the overall lead without a victory.

Cup regulars Larson, Busch and Logano dominated on a cloudy day at Fontana. Busch led after each of the first two stages, but he brushed the wall in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota with 28 laps to go.

Larson overcame a speeding penalty on pit road that sent him to the back of the field midway through the race.

Logano twice rallied back from far behind and led five times for 70 laps.

He got an early speeding penalty on pit road. His car later fell off the jack during a long pit stop, but he passed 20 cars in less than two laps to get right back in it.

Despite the technical glitches, Logano had a blast.

“I vote for two races at Auto Club Speedway, I’ll be the first to say that,” Logano said. “What an awesome race track. It’s so much fun. You can run anywhere you want. The racing is great. There is tire falloff. There are bumps. There’s everything here. It’s the perfect race track. I wish we came here more often, because it’s the best race track we go to.”

Paul Menard’s car caught fire after hitting the wall with about 55 laps to go, slowing the race. About 12 laps later, Cole Custer ended up with a wrecked car for the second straight week when he hit the wall on Turn 1.

Custer blamed his wreck on “a clown move” by Ryan Sieg, who apparently got clipped by Custer on a side draft earlier. Custer and Austin Dillon got into a prolonged scrape last week at Phoenix, with Dillon running Custer into a wall under caution to retaliate.

“Last week it was all my fault, and I’ll take that all on me,” Custer said. “Today it was just a clown. I don’t understand what his reasoning was to pay us back that much, but that’s just a joke.”

____

kyle-larson-runner-ups

SATURDAY’S RESULTS

At the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (7) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 150 laps, 0 rating, 0 points.

2. (1) Joey Logano, Ford, 150, 0, 0.

3. (16) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 150, 0, 0.

4. (3) Erik Jones, Toyota, 150, 0, 0.

5. (6) William Byron, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 39.

6. (10) Darrell Wallace Jr, Ford, 150, 0, 31.

7. (14) Elliott Sadler, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 45.

8. (13) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 35.

9. (20) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 28.

10. (9) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 0.

11. (2) Daniel Hemric, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 27.

12. (11) Blake Koch, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 25.

13. (17) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 24.

14. (19) Casey Mears, Ford, 150, 0, 23.

15. (15) Ryan Reed, Ford, 150, 0, 22.

16. (23) J.J. Yeley, Toyota, 150, 0, 21.

17. (22) Matt Tifft, Toyota, 150, 0, 20.

18. (26) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 150, 0, 0.

19. (18) Spencer Gallagher, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 18.

20. (21) Dakoda Armstrong, Toyota, 150, 0, 17.

21. (25) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 16.

22. (28) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 15.

23. (27) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 14.

24. (33) David Starr, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 13.

25. (34) Martin Roy, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 12.

26. (30) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 11.

27. (31) Ray Black Jr, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 10.

28. (37) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 9.

29. (32) Jeff Green, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 8.

30. (36) Timmy Hill, Toyota, 150, 0, 7.

31. (29) Harrison Rhodes, Chevrolet, 150, 0, 6.

32. (8) Brandon Jones, Chevrolet, 149, 0, 5.

33. (12) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 148, 0, 4.

34. (40) Mike Harmon, Dodge, 146, 0, 3.

35. (4) Cole Custer, Ford, accident, 106, 0, 8.

36. (5) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, accident, 94, 0, 0.

37. (24) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, accident, 81, 0, 1.

38. (39) Brandon Hightower, Toyota, transmission, 72, 0, 1.

39. (38) Stephen Leicht, Chevrolet, vibration, 12, 0, 1.

40. (35) Jordan Anderson, Chevrolet, electrical, 3, 0, 0.

———

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 116.883 mph.

Time of Race: 2 hours, 34 minutes, 0 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.127 Seconds.

Caution Flags: 7 for 43 laps.

Lead Changes: 18 among 6 drivers.

Lap Leaders: J. Logano 1-31; J. Clements 32-33; K. Busch 34-41; K. Larson 42-48; K. Busch 49-72; J. Logano 73; K. Busch 74-77; J. Logano 78-87; K. Busch 88-90; J. Logano 91-96; R. Black Jr. 97; K. Busch 98-103; W. Byron 104; K. Larson 105-107; K. Busch 108-117; J. Logano 118-138; K. Larson 139-142; J. Logano 143; K. Larson 144-150.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): J. Logano 6 times for 70 laps; K. Busch 6 times for 55 laps; K. Larson 4 times for 21 laps; J. Clements 1 time for 2 laps; W. Byron 1 time for 1 lap; R. Black Jr. 1 time for 1 lap.

Wins: J.Allgaier, 1; K.Busch, 1; K.Larson, 1; J.Logano, 1; R.Reed, 1.

Top 10 in Points: 1. E.Sadler, 189; 2. W.Byron, 172; 3. J.Allgaier, 143; 4. R.Reed, 143; 5. D.Wallace, 140; 6. B.Poole, 133; 7. D.Hemric, 131; 8. M.Annett, 113; 9. M.Tifft, 111; 10. B.Koch, 106.

NASCAR: If Brad Keselowski’s team took a risk at Phoenix, it was a bold one

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)   —-   If he were plumbing the edges of NASCAR’s new rules package or inspection system, crew chief Paul Wolfe might have been doing the same with the revamped points system that will determine the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.

That’s assuming the crew chief for Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford was actually tinkering when his team was snared post-race for a rear skew beyond NASCAR tolerance after finishing fifth Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.

Team Penske said Wednesday that it was “evaluating the area in question.” If this was the result of some unforeseen circumstance, that’s unfortunate for Wolfe, but still might provide a template for navigating a season under the new systems.

NASCAR levied a hefty 35-point penalty against Keselowski and the team, assessed Wolfe a three-race suspension and fined him $65,000 in response to major post-race malfeasance discovered in a laser station inspection. That stings.

But it could be ultimately beneficial if Wolfe can more definitively define the edge of what can be exploited when the series returns to Phoenix for the next-to-last playoff race of the season. Keselowski might not still be a viable championship contender by the time the series reaches that final cut race. But maybe he will. Same goes for teammate Joey Logano. But now, there’s information in the notebook.

Trouble is, if a risk was taken, the risk might not be worth the same reward as just a year ago, when a win punched an irrevocable playoff ticket and the assurance of a virtual points reset in the playoffs.

There is a reset, with an asterisk now.

It is for certain, despite the penalty, that Keselowski will be a member of the 16-driver playoffs that commence 22 races from now. His victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway ensures that. While the rest of his season — and those of fellow winners Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman — is more than a prolonged test session because of playoff bonuses in a revamped points system, taking a chance right now would have been alluring.

In losing 35 points, Keselowski dropped from second in the driver standings to fourth. His five playoff points remain in the bank and he figures to accrue many more with stage wins or further victories after starting the season with a win and two top-5s in four races. He would currently be in line for a seven-point bonus entering the postseason as the top 10 drivers in the standings are rewarded points in a sliding scale.

But the regular-season points leader earns 15 points to carry through the playoff rounds and Keselowski is now 41 behind leader Kyle Larson. Twenty-two races gives him plenty of time to make up those points, but in a series where minuscule margins have determined advancement in recent seasons, this could have ultimately been a risky parlay. Or trading points now for a chance at another championship trophy later.

If a risk was taken, it was a bold one.

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Recap Week: Larson finishes 2nd again, takes over points lead

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kyle Larson finished second at Phoenix International Raceway and then headed to the beach for a brief family vacation.

There was no lamenting his third consecutive runner-up finish because Larson is the current points leader of NASCAR’s top series. His positioning atop the standings is almost as good as a trip to victory lane.

Larson has now finished second in four of the last five Cup races dating to last season’s finale, and he was in contention for the victory in the Daytona 500 until he ran out of gas on the final lap and finished 12th. A two-tire stop put him in position to win Sunday at Phoenix in overtime, but a slip on the restart cost him any chance of running down leader Ryan Newman in the two-lap sprint to the finish.

“I mean, I guess little mistakes or inexperience or whatever you want to call it,” Larson said of his bridesmaid status. “Hindsight is always 20/20. But I should have went a lane up in one and two. I should have known to just stay close to Newman. That’s what I wish I would have done. But, yeah, it’s weird … I finish second like every week. Maybe we’ll turn them into wins soon.”

Sure, wins would be great, but at this pace, Larson doesn’t need them. He’s using consistency to run up front and stay in contention for a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs. It’s the beauty of NASCAR’s points system that is often overlooked.

Yes, a win just about guarantees a spot in the 16-driver field. But there have not been 16 individual race winners yet in this format, and additional slots go to the highest-ranking drivers in points.

Collecting points is how Newman nearly won the championship two seasons ago despite not winning a race, so not making it to victory lane is not a deal breaker.

Of course, the way he’s running, no one expects Larson to fall short of winning a race for much longer. He’s got one career victory, but many believe he’d have more if not for his own mistakes and his desire to not ruffle any feathers. Larson wants to run clean, so when he found himself bottled with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the restart Sunday, he didn’t force the issue.

Afterward, he admitted letting this win slip away “stings” but he wasn’t very hard on himself because it’s hard to be disappointed when you’re the points leader.

Larson is part of the rapidly changing face of NASCAR , in which young drivers are pushing toward the front and passed the veterans. Behind him in the standings are Chase Elliott (third), Joey Logano (fifth) and Ryan Blaney (sixth). At 26, Logano is the oldest of the bunch.

EVERYTHING IS GREAT

Kyle Busch dropped the phrase “everything is great” in response to every single question he was asked at Phoenix about a meeting with NASCAR to discuss a scuffle with Joey Logano. Then he said it again Sunday after finishing third in a race he likely would have won if not for a late caution brought out by — Logano.

His response channeled the attitude Marshawn Lynch often took in the NFL, when he only showed up to interviews so he wouldn’t get fined. But Busch is putting “Everything is great” to a good cause.

Busch said Monday that his charity and will sell T-shirts with “Everything is Great” across the front. The shirts are $22 — the same number as Logano’s car — and there’s no shipping or handling. Busch may have been in a lousy mood at Phoenix, but he’s at least trying to use it now to raise some money.

BIG FINISHES

There’s been so much attention on the fast starts of Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon, that somewhat overlooked through the first NASCAR month have been the Joe Gibbs Racing rookies.

But Daniel Suarez finished seventh at Phoenix and Erik Jones was eighth in his Furniture Row Racing entry for career-best finishes for both Cup rookies. Suarez has all of four Cup starts to his name, while Jones now has seven. Suarez was aided on the late caution by a two-tire pit call.

“The guys did an amazing job,” Suarez said. “They just did exactly what they had to do: a fast pit stop, two tires and the car was almost as good as four tires.”

Jones felt like Sunday could be a good day for his team, and he’d tested at the track in early February.

“I think it helped a lot,” Jones said of the test. “It was able to at least give us a good baseline to start with. I think every time we start coming back to these tracks for the second time we’re just going to be that much better and that much stronger. It was a big deal. I hope we test somewhere else this year for sure.”

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

Story lines to watch as NASCAR heads to Auto Club Speedway

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)   —-   The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series concludes its western spring swing Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Here’s three storylines to watch entering the fifth race of the season.

SECOND NATURE

One of team owner Chip Ganassi’s core principles is his affection and desire for employing for winners. He likes Kyle Larson very much, too, so much so he deposed Juan Pablo Montoya from the No. 42 Chevrolet to insert the much-heralded prospect beginning in 2014.

Larson broke through with a first career Cup win at Michigan International Speedway last season and has been ultra competitive and ultra-close to victory in the first four races this season. But for a wisp of fuel, he — or  Chase Elliott or Ryan Blaney, for that matter — might have won the Daytona 500. He finished 12th. He led late at Atlanta. He finished second. Las Vegas, too — and finished second.

Larson couldn’t execute the move he needed on an overtime restart on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, absorbing contact from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and watching Ryan Newman bear off to victory. Still Larson finished second again.

Being the points leader is some consolation, as does being in position to win consistently, he said, but added, “It’s weird running all these seconds.  It took me, like, three years to finish second in sprint cars.  Now I finish second like every week, so…  A little weird, but maybe we’ll turn them into wins soon.”

Larson became the first driver in Cup Series history to finish as runner-up three times in the first four races of the season according to NASCAR statisticians, and could tie an unwanted record on Sunday — joining Mark Martin (1998), Harry Gant (1985), Darrell Waltrip (1983) and Richard Petty (1964) in finishing second in four consecutive races.

Before Larson, Carl Edwards (2011 playoffs) was the last driver to take second three straight times.

Good news: Edwards used that season-ending run to tie Tony Stewart atop the final standings.

Bad news: Stewart won the final at Homestead-Miami Speedway and captured his last championship on tiebreakers.

Larson finished … second in his first Cup race at Fontana in 2014, but was subsequently 26th and 39th after a wreck last season.

JIMMIE PANIC!

No need for it. Certainly, the seven-time and defending series champion is a seemingly uncharacteristic 16th in the points standings, but his recent early season performance suggests his season so far is, if not typical, is within the range of normalcy. Johnson was 26th after four races in 2014 and 22nd in 2013, when he went on to win a championship. Yes, he was third in points and had a win by this time last year but was also hurtling toward a career-long 24-race winless streak before winning the playoff race at Charlotte. So last season turned out fine.

DYNAMIC DUO:Johnson, Knaus stick together to chase history

Besides, Johnson was third before being collected in a late Daytona 500 wreck, and was competitive at times at Atlanta and Las Vegas. Still, he had begun the season without a top 10 finish for the first time in his career before a ninth-place at Phoenix ended that run.

Johnson should feel confident entering Auto Club Speedway, where he is the defending race winner and has won six times overall, most among all drivers.

HEY-GR

Joe Gibbs Racing, however, might be faced with more concern. The dominant team — in conjunction with affiliate Furniture Row Racing – for the dominant manufacturer (Toyota) last season, JGR won 16 of the 36 races, but the four-car team has collected just two top-5 finishes so far with a newly designed Camry. Furniture Row’s Martin Truex Jr. dominated in winning at Las Vegas, however.

Kyle Busch has found great success at the two-mile oval, winning two (2013-14) of the past three races he’s contested at Fontana. He finished a distant 25th last year, breaking a streak of four consecutive top-three finishes in Southern California. Teammate Matt Kenseth has three career victories and nine top-five finishes at Auto Club Speedway, but his results have been inconsistent there since a strong stretch between 2005-09.

NASCAR: Larson finishes 2nd again, takes over points lead

This gallery contains 1 photo.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kyle Larson finished second at Phoenix International Raceway and then headed to the beach for a brief family vacation.

There was no lamenting his third consecutive runner-up finish because Larson is the current points leader of NASCAR’s top series. His positioning atop the standings is almost as good as a trip to victory lane.

Larson has now finished second in four of the last five Cup races dating to last season’s finale, and he was in contention for the victory in the Daytona 500 until he ran out of gas on the final lap and finished 12th. A two-tire stop put him in position to win Sunday at Phoenix in overtime, but a slip on the restart cost him any chance of running down leader Ryan Newman in the two-lap sprint to the finish.

“I mean, I guess little mistakes or inexperience or whatever you want to call it,” Larson said of his bridesmaid status. “Hindsight is always 20/20. But I should have went a lane up in one and two. I should have known to just stay close to Newman. That’s what I wish I would have done. But, yeah, it’s weird … I finish second like every week. Maybe we’ll turn them into wins soon.”

Sure, wins would be great, but at this pace, Larson doesn’t need them. He’s using consistency to run up front and stay in contention for a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs. It’s the beauty of NASCAR’s points system that is often overlooked.

Yes, a win just about guarantees a spot in the 16-driver field. But there have not been 16 individual race winners yet in this format, and additional slots go to the highest-ranking drivers in points.

Collecting points is how Newman nearly won the championship two seasons ago despite not winning a race, so not making it to victory lane is not a deal breaker.

Of course, the way he’s running, no one expects Larson to fall short of winning a race for much longer. He’s got one career victory, but many believe he’d have more if not for his own mistakes and his desire to not ruffle any feathers. Larson wants to run clean, so when he found himself bottled with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the restart Sunday, he didn’t force the issue.

Afterward, he admitted letting this win slip away “stings” but he wasn’t very hard on himself because it’s hard to be disappointed when you’re the points leader.

Larson is part of the rapidly changing face of NASCAR , in which young drivers are pushing toward the front and passed the veterans. Behind him in the standings are Chase Elliott (third), Joey Logano (fifth) and Ryan Blaney (sixth). At 26, Logano is the oldest of the bunch.

EVERYTHING IS GREAT

Kyle Busch dropped the phrase “everything is great” in response to every single he was question he was asked at Phoenix about a meeting with NASCAR to discuss a scuffle with Joey Logano. Then he said it again Sunday after finishing third in a race he likely would have won if not for a late caution brought out by — Logano.

His response channeled the attitude Marshawn Lynch often took in the NFL, when he only showed up to interviews so he wouldn’t get fined. But Busch is putting “Everything is great” to a good cause.

Busch said Monday that his charitable and will sell T-shirts with “Everything is Great” across the front. The shirts are $22 — the same number as Logano’s car — and there’s no shipping or handling. Busch may have been in a lousy mood at Phoenix, but he’s at least trying to use it now to raise some money.

BIG FINISHES

There’s been so much attention on the fast starts of Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon, that somewhat overlooked through the first NASCAR month has been the Joe Gibbs Racing rookies.

But Daniel Suarez finished seventh at Phoenix and Erik Jones was eighth in his Furniture Row Race entry for career-best finishes for both Cup rookies. Suarez has all of four Cup starts to his name, while Jones now has seven. Suarez was aided on the late caution by a two-tire pit call.

“The guys did an amazing job,” Suarez said. “They just did exactly what they had to do: a fast pit stop, two tires and the car was almost as good as four tires.”

Jones felt like Sunday could be a good day for his team, and he’d tested at the track in early February.

“I think it helped a lot,” Jones said of the test. “It was able to at least give us a good baseline to start with. I think every time we start coming back to these tracks for the second time we’re just going to be that much better and that much stronger. It was a big deal. I hope we test somewhere else this year for sure.”

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

NASCAR: Newman skips late pit stop, stuns NASCAR field in Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Ryan Newman gambled and skipped a tire-changing pit stop to move from seventh place to the lead and held on for the final two laps for a surprise victory in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series race.

The 39-year-old Newman, who broke a 127-race winless streak, held off Kyle Larson, the second-place finisher for the third straight race.

Kyle Busch, the leader for nearly all of the final stage of the race, was third on a day when the temperature soared to 97 degrees at Phoenix International Raceway.

Like nearly all the rest of the field, Larson and Busch went to the pits on the late caution caused when Joey Logano’s car blew a right tire and slammed into the wall six laps from the finish.

Newman, in his first win since the 2013 Brickyard 400, gave Chevrolet its first victory of the season and ended a 112-race losing streak for Richard Childress Racing.

Once again, Logano’s misfortune foiled Busch. Last week Logano’s car knocked Busch’s into the wall on the final stretch in Las Vegas. That led Busch to storm down pit row and throw a punch at Logano, creating a scuffle with the crews and a meeting for the drivers with NASCAR officials on Friday.

Busch took the lead with a quick pit stop during a caution flag and led for 113 laps before heading to the pits after Logano’s crash.

The series of runner-up finishes gave Larson the Cup points lead, the first time Chip Ganassi Racing has led the points race this late in the season since 2002.

Larson, with two new tires on his Chevrolet, came out of the late pit stop with two new tires ahead of Busch’s Toyota and had the best chance to catch Newman. But he couldn’t find a way to get around the veteran.

Logano won the first stage and Chase Elliott the second in NASCAR’s new three-stage racing system.

Elliott dominated the second stage but lost the lead after Matt Kenseth, like Logano, blew a right front tire and slammed into the wall on the 193rd lap of the 314-lap race. In the ensuing pit stop, Busch got out quicker than Elliott to take the lead.

Blown tires were a common site on the hot pavement.

LOGANO’S WOES

Logano started on the pole and won on the same track in the next-to-last race of last season. He was in third place coming out of the pits during a caution flag between the second and third series but was penalized for speeding on pit row.

The held him back a lap and he had climbed his way through about half of the field before the tire blew.

A week ago, Busch was penalized for pit row speeding.

UP NEXT

The Cup’s “NASCAR Goes West” tour heads to Fontana, Calif., next Sunday for the finale of its three-race spring trip to the West.

CAMPING WORLD 500 RESULTS

Sunday at Phoenix Raceway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (22) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 314 laps, 0 rating, 42 points.

2. (4) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 314, 0, 53.

3. (9) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 314, 0, 47.

4. (21) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 314, 0, 33.

5. (6) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 314, 0, 46.

6. (23) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 314, 0, 32.

7. (27) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 314, 0, 30.

8. (8) Erik Jones, Toyota, 314, 0, 33.

9. (14) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 314, 0, 38.

10. (19) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 314, 0, 29.

11. (16) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 314, 0, 26.

12. (7) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 314, 0, 42.

13. (13) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 314, 0, 24.

14. (3) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 314, 0, 24.

15. (5) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 314, 0, 33.

16. (15) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 314, 0, 21.

17. (28) Aric Almirola, Ford, 314, 0, 20.

18. (17) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 314, 0, 19.

19. (24) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 314, 0, 18.

20. (10) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 314, 0, 17.

21. (18) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 314, 0, 16.

22. (26) Danica Patrick, Ford, 314, 0, 15.

23. (2) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 314, 0, 21.

24. (25) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 314, 0, 13.

25. (11) Kurt Busch, Ford, 314, 0, 12.

26. (20) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 314, 0, 11.

27. (33) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 314, 0, 10.

28. (29) Landon Cassill, Ford, 313, 0, 9.

29. (30) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 313, 0, 8.

30. (35) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 312, 0, 7.

31. (1) Joey Logano, Ford, accident, 307, 0, 16.

32. (39) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, 307, 0, 0.

33. (37) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 307, 0, 4.

34. (32) Cole Whitt, Ford, accident, 256, 0, 3.

35. (34) David Ragan, Ford, accident, 204, 0, 2.

36. (36) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, accident, 201, 0, 1.

37. (12) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, accident, 190, 0, 1.

38. (31) Corey Lajoie, Toyota, accident, 115, 0, 1.

39. (38) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, transmission, 9, 0, 1.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 104.271 mph.

Time of Race: 3 hours, 0 minutes, 41 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.312 seconds.

Caution Flags: 8 for 45 laps.

Lead Changes: 15 among 8 drivers.

Lap Leaders: J.Logano 1-29; R.Sorenson 30; J.Logano 31-78; Ku.Busch 79; J.Logano 80-84; C.Elliott 85-118; K.Larson 119; C.Elliott 120-121; K.Larson 122; C.Elliott 123-152; K.Larson 153; C.Elliott 154-193; Ky.Busch 194; C.Buescher 195; Ky.Busch 196-308; R.Newman 309-314

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): Ky.Busch, 2 times for 112 laps; C.Elliott, 4 times for 102 laps; J.Logano, 3 times for 79 laps; R.Newman, 1 time for 5 laps; K.Larson, 3 times for 0 laps; C.Buescher, 1 time for 0 laps; Ku.Busch, 1 time for 0 laps; R.Sorenson, 1 time for 0 laps.

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

Top 16 in Points: 1. K.Larson, 184; 2. B.Keselowski, 178; 3. C.Elliott, 171; 4. M.Truex, 153; 5. J.Logano, 135; 6. R.Blaney, 127; 7. K.Harvick, 123; 8. J.McMurray, 119; 9. Ku.Busch, 105; 10. K.Kahne, 105; 11. R.Newman, 101; 12. T.Bayne, 100; 13. C.Bowyer, 97; 14. Ky.Busch, 97; 15. D.Hamlin, 97; 16. J.Johnson, 93.

NASCAR: Allgaier holds on to win Xfinity, his 1st victory in 5 years

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AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Justin Allgaier acknowledges there were some very down moments in his long NASCAR Xfinity victory drought.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “There are moments in my racing career when I wondered why I got up and went to the race track.”

But his family’s support kept him trying, he said, and Saturday, in scorching heat, he earned his first victory in nearly five years.

Allgaier held off Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones. Blaney, who started the day 33rd after missing the qualifying, pulled ahead of Jones before the final lap to finish second.

Jones and Blaney won the first and second stages of NASCAR’s three-stage format.

There were nine caution flags for 54 laps of the 200-lap race.

The temperature at Phoenix International Raceway in the barren hills southwest of the city was 93 degrees when the race started and 96 by the end.

Elliott Sadler finished fifth and remained the series points leader.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t driving Saturday, but he sure had a big day. Three of the cars he owns finished in the top five in NASCAR’s Xfinity race, led by Allgaier’s Camaro.

“As a team owner, you just want the guys to be competitive,” Earnhardt said, “but I was really, really happy to see how well we qualified and how well we qualified and how strong the cars were throughout the day.

“That’s our responsibility as owners, to provide our guys with the best that we can and I feel like we gave them some good stuff to work with today.”

NASCAR officials summoned Austin Dillon, his crew chief and spotter to a meeting, ordering the car off the track, after he appeared to retaliate by knocking Cole Custer’s car into the wall during the final caution. Custer tapped Dillon’s Toyota into the wall to force the caution initially.

When Custer came around during the caution flag, Dillon ran Custer’s Ford into the wall and the yellow flag became a red flag with spilled fuel on the track.

NASCAR had no immediate comment on any possible penalties.

The final restart came with four laps remaining, and Allgier said his car was “lights out.”

In an earlier restart, Dillon had driven his car low, allowing Jones to take the lead briefly but Allgaier had the fastest car at the end.

Allgaier’s crew replaced all four tires late in the race while Jones’ went with two and it made a difference on the pavement slickened by the fuel.

“It’s so hot that I think that two tires aren’t going to be as competitive here as they might have been in the past,” Allgaier’s crew chief Jason Burdett said.

Allgaier is the first Xfinity series regular driver to win this year in the three races. The first two races were won by NASCAR Cup drivers Kyle Busch and Joey Logano but no Cup veterans competed on Saturday.

The race was a preliminary to Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race.

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DC SOLAR 200 RESULTS

Saturday at Phoenix Raceway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (5) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 0 laps, 0 rating, 54 points.

2. (33) Ryan Blaney, Ford, ontrack, 0, 0, 0.

3. (2) Erik Jones, Toyota, ontrack, 0, 0, 0.

4. (1) William Byron, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 43.

5. (6) Elliott Sadler, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 45.

6. (7) Darrell Wallace Jr, Ford, ontrack, 0, 0, 39.

7. (35) Daniel Hemric, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 32.

8. (17) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 32.

9. (12) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 28.

10. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 0.

11. (11) Ryan Reed, Ford, ontrack, 0, 0, 26.

12. (8) Matt Tifft, Toyota, ontrack, 0, 0, 25.

13. (4) Blake Koch, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 26.

14. (15) Tyler Reddick, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 31.

15. (37) Brandon Jones, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 22.

16. (18) J.J. Yeley, Toyota, ontrack, 0, 0, 21.

17. (36) Dakoda Armstrong, Toyota, ontrack, 0, 0, 20.

18. (22) Spencer Gallagher, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 19.

19. (19) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 18.

20. (14) Drew Herring, Toyota, ontrack, 0, 0, 17.

21. (9) Cole Custer, Ford, ontrack, 0, 0, 16.

22. (38) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 15.

23. (20) Harrison Rhodes, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 14.

24. (23) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 13.

25. (39) B J McLeod, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 12.

26. (31) Timmy Hill, Toyota, ontrack, 0, 0, 11.

27. (10) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 10.

28. (28) Mario Gosselin, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 9.

29. (21) Ray Black Jr, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 8.

30. (24) Matt Mills, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 0.

31. (30) Mike Harmon, Dodge, ontrack, 0, 0, 6.

32. (27) David Starr, Chevrolet, ontrack, 0, 0, 5.

33. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, accident, 190, 0, 0.

34. (16) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, accident, 189, 0, 3.

35. (25) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, accident, 151, 0, 2.

36. (29) Morgan Shepherd, Chevrolet, accident, 33, 0, 1.

37. (40) Stephen Leicht, Chevrolet, accident, 24, 0, 1.

38. (32) Carl Long, Toyota, accident, 18, 0, 1.

39. (34) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, accident, 11, 0, 0.

40. (26) Jordan Anderson, Chevrolet, accident, 3, 0, 0.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 91.017 mph.

Time of Race: 2 hours, 11 minutes, 51 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.741 seconds.

Caution Flags: 9 for 55 laps.

Lead Changes: 13 among 6 drivers.

Lap Leaders: W.Byron 0; E.Jones 1-19; J.Allgaier 20-28; E.Jones 29-64; A.Dillon 65-81; J.Allgaier 82-109; R.Blaney 110-124; A.Dillon 125-138; J.Allgaier 139-159; M.Tifft 160-163; E.Jones 164; J.Allgaier 165-172; E.Jones 173-181; J.Allgaier 182-200

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): J.Allgaier, 5 times for 80 laps; E.Jones, 4 times for 61 laps; A.Dillon, 2 times for 29 laps; R.Blaney, 1 time for 14 laps; M.Tifft, 1 time for 3 laps; W.Byron, 1 time for 0 laps.

Wins: J.Allgaier, 1; R.Reed, 1.

Top 10 in Points: 1. E.Sadler, 144; 2. W.Byron, 133; 3. R.Reed, 121; 4. J.Allgaier, 115; 5. D.Wallace, 109; 6. D.Hemric, 104; 7. B.Poole, 98; 8. M.Tifft, 91; 9. M.Annett, 89; 10. D.Armstrong, 84.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Busch qualified ninth.

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

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

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

Bring it on, Logano said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are the two OK?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick to put the pedal to the metal at NASCAR Phoenix race

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)   —-   Approaching the fourth race of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule, it’s about time for 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick to qualify for the 10-race playoffs that cap the season.

His Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Kurt Busch, won the Daytona 500 and Harvick was in position to follow with a victory the next week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, only to ruin his run — which included leading 292 of 325 laps — because of a late pit-road speeding penalty. Phoenix Raceway should fix everything, if Harvick’s recent and long-term results continue at the 1-mile oval.

A Southern Californian, Harvick developed an affinity for Phoenix when he raced in the Copper World Classic on the Southwest Tour there before becoming a breakout NASCAR performer with Richard Childress Racing. Good memories and crew chiefs — currently Rodney Childers — able to give Harvick what he wants in a car have made him the benchmark for the series at the track.

In winning six of the past nine races at Phoenix, finishing second twice and leading 38 percent of the laps in the last 10, Harvick has accumulated more points there than any driver over each subsequent season.  The winner at Phoenix last spring, Harvick was fourth in the fall, failing to use the penultimate race of the season to leap into the final at Homestead-Miami Speedway as he’d done in 2014. That seems like a long dry spell in the desert by his standards.

Childers sounded encouraged by late developments from an organizational test at Phoenix as SHR continues its transition from Chevrolets to Ford.

“Going into it I thought we’d be competitive from his standpoint,” he said. “We’ve had a good setup there that last three years, but the test didn’t start out the way we wanted it to.  We struggled the first day and really about half the second day, and then we got going really good at the end of the second day.  We learned a lot out there and look forward to going back and, hopefully, have another shot at the victory out there.”

Here are two other drivers that should be a factor in Sunday’s Camping World 500:

Kyle Busch: The Joe Gibbs Racing driver hasn’t won at Phoenix since his first full Cup season when took Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet to victory lane in November of 2005 but has been second only to Harvick in gathering points at Phoenix in the last the two races. He finished second last fall to Joey Logano and fourth in the previous two races, so he figures to come out swinging again on Sunday.

Joey Logano: Speaking of Logano, the would-be Las Vegas brawlers figure to be vying for the same slice of desert again on Sunday. At Vegas it was third place on the final lap, at Phoenix it could be a playoff spot and bonus points. Discounting an 18th-place finish at Phoenix last spring — when a failure to fully fill the No. 22 Ford led to an unscheduled stop — Logano has been solidly a top-10 performer there since the fall of 2013, with a win and a third-place finish in November, 2015.

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Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

NASCAR does not penalize Busch or Logano for Vegas fight

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR on Wednesday declined to penalize Kyle Busch, Joey Logano of their crews for their post-race scuffle at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

NASCAR said the sport was built on the kind of racing that Busch and Logano did on the final laps of Sunday’s race. The hard racing for position led to Busch confronting Logano after the race, and throwing a punch.

Busch was knocked to the ground by Team Penske crew members and cut his forehead in the scuffle.

“The emotions of our athletes run high, and Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are two of the most passionate and competitive drivers in the sport,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “Both competitors are very clear on our expectations going forward and we will be meeting with them in person prior to practice on Friday in Phoenix.”

Logano told FoxSports1 on Tuesday that he and Busch have spoken since the incident.

“Obviously, we didn’t speak much there, so I got a chance to call him up earlier … to be able to talk to him a little bit and at least tell my side of the story,” Logano said. “We’re going to have two sides to the story like there is all the time, but really the bottom line is we’re two passionate race car drivers. We’re two of the best in the sport that are going to go for wins that are aggressive and we collided.”

NASCAR did issue two lug nut penalties: The teams for Martin Truex Jr. and Ty Dillon were penalized for lug nuts not being properly installed. Truex crew chief Cole Pearn and Dillon crew chief Bootie Barker were each fined $10,000.

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

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: It takes a brawl for NASCAR to go mainstream

This gallery contains 1 photo.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kyle Busch had a gash on his forehead and blood running down his nose when he promised payback to Joey Logano. The two had a brief post-race pit road brawl that can be seen on TMZ, the “Today Show” and, really, just about anywhere.

The tussle shoved NASCAR into the watercooler talk Monday alongside the NCAA Tournament, and the reason why should be a wakeup call to every stakeholder in the stagnant sport because, like it or not, Busch getting pummeled by Logano’s crew is the lasting memory of the race.

NASCAR can make any format change under the sun, try gimmicks, slick marketing or the Monster Energy Girls, but its mainstream audience wants drama. Only racing fans know that a late caution nearly cost Martin Truex Jr. the win, that Brad Keselowski lost the race because of a car part failure and that his disabled race car likely led to the Busch-Logano brouhaha.

Inside the racing bubble, all of this is both a dream come true and a nightmare.

NASCAR doesn’t want to be known for brawling , and its drivers don’t particularly enjoy the scrutiny and/or punishment that comes from bad behavior. But this sport is in desperate need of rivalries, and nothing gets people talking like a bloodied face after a race.

NASCAR Chairman Brian France suggested the drivers aren’t likely to receive harsh penalties.

“We just shouldn’t come out of our chairs over this,” France said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The pressure on these guys today is so difficult. So it shouldn’t surprise anybody that every once in a while, somebody is going to boil over, somebody is going to think that they saw an incident in a different way and, whether it’s true or not true doesn’t matter, emotions are going to get the best of them. That’s just part of it.”

The Busch-Logano bout Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway happened in the pits.

Busch felt that Logano wrecked him as the two raced for position past Keselowski’s slowed car, so he sped down pit road, leaving the bulk of his Joe Gibbs Racing crew behind, and sought out Logano. When he found his former teammate, Busch went in swinging.

Logano insists he wasn’t hit, video is inconclusive, but Busch walking into a group of Team Penske employees was a recipe for disaster. It was the Penske crew members who pulled Busch away, got him to the ground and, in that scrum, bloodied his head.

Roger Penske has said his employees are there to defuse those situations — his drivers, Logano and Keselowski, have had their share of confrontations — but the only defusing came from one public relations employee who forcefully pulled Logano out of the fray. Most everyone else on the scene seemed all too eager to get their hands on Busch and that’s a problem for NASCAR. These are not situations where the crew should get involved. It’s for NASCAR officials to intervene, and it ultimately was a pair of NASCAR employees who pulled Busch from the pile and out of the way.

Keselowski, who was punched in the face by Jeff Gordon in a 2014 scrum of team members, noted the issue on Twitter after the race.

“Fighting in Motorsport is dumb,” Keselowski tweeted. “It always turns into a pile and your own guys hit each other. At least in hockey they are good at it.”

Well, the NHL is actually trying to curb fighting, but Keselowski’s point is valid. Driver disputes must be policed by NASCAR, not the teams.

France seemed to think everything will be taken care of because there’s precedent. Although Busch vowed to exact revenge, France believes the 2015 blowback from a long-running feud between Busch teammate Matt Kenseth and Logano will put an end to possible payback.

“There will be no retaliation,” France told Sirius. “That will not be happening. That’s not going to happen anyway. The drivers understand what we did a couple of years ago at Martinsville (suspending Matt Kenseth two races for wrecking Logano), that is unacceptable.

“So what happens on the track, good or for bad for one driver or another, that’s where it stays, and we move on to the next event.”

We’ll see. This incident certainly hasn’t hurt NASCAR, and a little bad blood could really liven up an otherwise slow start to the season.

___

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.

____

 

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: Logano pulls away from Larson, wins Las Vegas Xfinity race

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Joey Logano believes the evolving strategy of restarts has made it one of the most challenging aspects for a NASCAR driver.

Logano got plenty of chances to test his skills Saturday in the Xfinity race, and made all the right moves.

Logano pulled away from Kyle Larson on a restart with four laps left and held on to win his 21st race in the second-tier circuit.

Logano chose the outside lane and moved in front of Larson out of the fourth turn at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his first Xfinity victory since October at Charlotte.

“There’s so much to think about to understand restarts and making the right decisions,” Logano said. “Not only what lane to pick or getting up through the gears, but the first two laps of a restart are intense and important.”

Daniel Suarez put Cup regulars in the top three spots. Justin Allgaier was fourth, followed by Austin Dillon and Darrell Wallace Jr., who needed medical attention after the race because of illness.

NASCAR Cup regulars Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski won the first two stages of the 200-lap race.

Elliott Sadler finished 10th and retained the series lead by four points over Ryan Reed, who was ninth.

Logano, who started fourth in the Team Penske No. 12 Ford, was in front to start the final stage with 102 laps left and re-took the lead after a cycle of green-flag pit stops with 55 laps left. Logano was first out of the pits after a debris caution and held the lead on the restart with 33 laps remaining.

Logano then held on following three more cautions, the last coming when Matt Tifft ran into Spencer Gallagher and spun out.

Why did he want the inside on the restart?

“Last year in a Cup race I started from the inside as the leader and I lost the lead,” Logano said.

There was an additional wreck at the end, but not early enough to give Larson one more restart chance.

“I thought Joey and I were pretty equal, but I think clean air was big,” Larson said.

Busch started from the pole and just edged Larson to win the first 45-lap segment despite dealing with vibration issues.

Larson beat Busch out of the pits on the ensuing caution, but later gave up the lead to get new tires, as teams still work on the proper strategy for segment racing.

But the move allowed Keselowski, who will start from the pole in Sunday’s Cup race, take the second stage after 90 laps ahead of Busch.

Keselowski had an unscheduled pit stop early in the final segment because of a loose wheel and ended up 10th.

Busch, last year’s Xfinity winner on the 1.5-mile oval, finished seventh.

Wallace appeared ill at the driver meeting and went to the infield care center following the race.

It was a rough day for Brendan Gaughan at his home track. He had to go behind the wall in the second segment for a new carburetor at his home track. Not long after he returned, he spun out. Gaughan finished 35th.

____

Results

Saturday At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas

Lap length: 1.5 miles (Starting position in parentheses)

1. (4) Joey Logano, Ford, 200.

2. (7) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 200.

3. (3) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 200.

4. (13) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 200.

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

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

7. (1) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 200.

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

9. (10) Ryan Reed, Ford, 200.

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

11. (20) Cole Custer, Ford, 200.

12. (19) Blake Koch, Chevrolet, 200.

13. (8) Daniel Hemric, Chevrolet, 200.

14. (18) William Byron, Chevrolet, 200.

15. (12) Brandon Jones, Chevrolet, 200.

16. (11) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet, 200.

17. (15) Aric Almirola, Ford, 200.

18. (27) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, 200.

19. (22) Drew Herring, Toyota, 200.

20. (21) Dakoda Armstrong, Toyota, 200.

21. (28) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 200.

22. (23) J.J. Yeley, Toyota, 200.

23. (24) Spencer Gallagher, Chevrolet, 200.

24. (9) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 199.

25. (26) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 199.

26. (25) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 198.

27. (31) Harrison Rhodes, Chevrolet, 198.

28. (37) David Starr, Chevrolet, 197.

29. (34) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 197.

30. (36) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 196.

31. (29) Ray Black Jr., Chevrolet, 196.

32. (35) Martin Roy, Chevrolet, 196.

33. (32) Timmy Hill, Toyota, 195.

34. (6) Matt Tifft, Toyota, Accident, 191.

35. (17) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 189.

36. (33) Jeff Green, Chevrolet, Accident, 177.

37. (39) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, Brakes, 159.

38. (38) Brandon Hightower, Chevrolet, Vibration, 18.

39. (40) Stephen Leicht, Chevrolet, Accident, 4.

40. (30) Jordan Anderson, Chevrolet, Electrical, 1.

Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 118.525 mph.

Time of Race: 2 Hrs, 31 Mins, 52 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.602 Seconds.

Caution Flags: 9 for 44 laps.

Lead Changes: 8 among 5 drivers.

Lap Leaders: K. Busch 1-48; K. Larson 49-74; J. Logano 75; K. Larson 76-80; B. Keselowski 81-92; J. Logano 93-142; K. Larson 143-144; J. Yeley 145; J. Logano 146-200.

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): J. Logano 3 times for 106 laps; K. Busch 1 time for 48 laps; K. Larson 3 times for 33 laps; B. Keselowski 1 time for 12 laps; J. Yeley 1 time for 1 lap.

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