Ryan: A day of fast cars but frayed emotions for Joe Gibbs Racing

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Kyle Busch flipped a thumbs up and a discordant message at team owner Joe Gibbs while briskly walking away from the pits Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.

“—ing great teammate,” Busch said.

Without acknowledgement, Gibbs stoically walked a few yards down the track’s pit lane to the No. 11 Toyota, where the object of Busch’s ire, Denny Hamlin, still was completing postrace interviews.

Was Joe Gibbs Racing – the epitome of harmonious cooperation a week earlier in rear-guard formation at Talladega Superspeedway – suddenly in need of smoothing out some fissures within a NASCAR fortress that largely was impenetrable in dominating much of the Sprint Cup season?

“I don’t think so,” Gibbs told NBC Sports. “I think they kind of handle stuff like that themselves, but, you know, our guys are all very competitive. You got three different sponsors, and everyone’s going hard. That’s part of being in a good situation and having good cars.

“I think all three of them are racing extremely hard, and I think probably all three of them were going for it as hard as they could. I think that can happen when you have three good cars.”

JGR had four great cars in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500, but it was understandable why the powerhouse with half of the remaining eight Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders left the 0.526-mile oval with an empty feeling.

Carl Edwards finished 36th after blowing a tire on his No. 19 Toyota just before a scheduled pit stop with 160 laps to go. Teammates Busch (fifth), Hamlin (third) and Matt Kenseth (fourth with a race-high 176 laps led) all earned top fives that were served with a whopping double-combination reality check.

There will be no scenario in which JGR’s dream regular season – 13 wins in 26 races — will end with the championship decided in an intrasquad battle within the walls of its Huntersville, N.C., headquarters.

That was ensured by the continued resurgence of Jimmie Johnson, who quickly is emerging as the JGR dream killer of the 2016 playoffs.

With his 79th career victory, the six-time series champion catapulted into the championship round of the playoffs and will have the opportunity to prevent another driver from advancing next week at Texas Motor Speedway, where he has won four consecutive times in the annual November race.

Whichever three cars – JGR or otherwise – that are title-eligible for the Nov. 20 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will have to contend with Johnson, who has a two-week jump-start on the competition and the history-making motivation of tying an all-time record with a seventh title.

Though JGR has yet to win in the Chase, the team seems undaunted by the prospect of wresting a title from Johnson’s grasp.

“I think anyone can be beat,” Hamlin said. “I wouldn’t deem anyone better than the rest.  I think that any car that makes it in, whether it be points or wins, is going to be tough to beat.

“It’s not deflating from my standpoint because we still had a very good showing.  Our cars all ran really, really well throughout the entire day.”

The first half of Sunday’s race did belong to JGR and Toyota ally Martin Truex Jr.

Camrys occupied the top four slots for long stretches and showed deference on restarts (with the first-place car taking the outside so the second-place car stayed on the preferred bottom line and allowed the leader down).

But after the final restart on Lap 387 of 500, it understandably turned into a scramble that engendered some ill will, namely from Busch.

“We worked so good together that we just gave the win to (Johnson) today,” he said, sardonically adding. “So, JGR all the way.”

Busch’s primary issue was that Hamlin had raced so hard against him and Kenseth that it ruined any chance of a Gibbs car catching Johnson while simultaneously clearing a path for runner-up Brad Keselowski to knife by in traffic.

“You had the slowest Gibbs car holding up the rest of the line, and all we did was let somebody else (Keselowski) from another organization pass us and go up there and chase down (Johnson),” Busch said. “That could have been either (Kenseth) or myself if it wasn’t for (Hamlin) holding the rest of us up.”

Laughing after being told Gibbs said he lets his drivers settle their differences (“That ain’t true. He gets right in the middle.”), Hamlin said he hadn’t talked to Busch after the race. He also was puzzled by his teammate’s anger.

“I may have held those guys up for a little bit of that final run but definitely don’t think I was holding anyone up at the end, for sure,” Hamlin said. “I had no idea why anyone was mad at me, to be honest with you. If somebody is mad at me, honestly I don’t know why.

“None of us were going to get (Johnson). That’s real talk there. Someone’s upset, I think it’s just because we all had a top‑three car during the end of the race, and we ended up three, four, five. That’s never happy.”

It’s hard to make everyone happy in a sport where “teammates” are racing tooth and nail for positions on every lap.

For JGR, it figures only to get harder from here.

Hooters joins Chase Elliott sponsorship program for 2017-18

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Chase Elliott has added a new high-profile sponsor for the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday that the Hooters restaurant chain will serve as primary sponsor for two races in each of those seasons, as well as serve as a associate sponsor for all of the other races in both seasons on Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet SS in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Elliott’s two races with Hooters primary sponsorship this season will be May 7 at Talladega and Nov. 12 at Phoenix.

Hooters has had a long sponsorship history in NASCAR, with its colors gracing cars for over 150 Cup-level races over the years. Most prominent was the 1992 season when it served as primary sponsor on Alan Kulwicki’s championship-winning Ford.

Ironically, Kulwicki beat Elliott’s father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, by 10 points to win that season’s championship.

“Twenty-five years after being part of one of the most memorable seasons in NASCAR history, Hooters is excited to support another amazing talent in Chase Elliott and the No. 24 team,” Hooters chief marketing officer Carl Sweat sweat said in a media release.

Elliott earned Cup Series rookie of the year honors in 2016, with 10 top-five finishes, 17 top-10s and two pole positions.

“Hooters has a historic place in this sport, and I’m glad they’re back,” Chase Elliott said. “Our entire team is looking forward to making the program a success.”

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Lady Antebellum to highlight Daytona 500 pre-race show

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Seven-time Grammy Award winners Lady Antebellum will highlight the Feb. 26 pre-race show for this year’s Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway officials announced Monday.

The multi-platinum CD-selling country trio will take the stage not only prior to the 2017 season-opening and 59th edition of the Great American Race, but also the first race under Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series entitlement sponsorship.

Lady Antebellum – made up of Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood – will be on hand to promote its sixth album, Heart Break, which is due for release on June 9, with the first single being “You Look Good,” which will be the cornerstone to kick off a six-country “You Look Good World Tour.”

Lady Antebellum is no stranger to DIS: they performed a pre-race concert prior to the 2008 Coke Zero 400 and also played at last year’s inaugural Country 500 Music Festival.

“’The Great American Race’ will have one of today’s great American country music acts front-and-center for our fans to enjoy,” DIS President Chip Wile said in a statement. “Lady Antebellum continues a long-standing DIS tradition of attracting major stars from the world of entertainment to the ’World Center of Racing’ and the Daytona 500.”

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Brad Keselowski Racing announces crew chief assignments

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Brad Keselowski Racing has announced the crew chiefs that will be paired with both of its full-time rookie drivers this season in the Camping World Truck Series.

Austin Cindric, driving the No. 19 Draw-Tite Ford, will work with Doug Randolph. Randolph has been a crew chief for BKR since 2012 and has six wins, including three with Tyler Reddick in the last two seasons. Randolph also has four Xfinity Series wins.

Mike Hillman Jr. will be the crew chief for Chase Briscoe in the No. 29 Cooper Standard Ford. Hillman is a two-time Truck series champion as crew chief for Todd Bodine (2006, 2010). He has 20 Truck Series wins, the last coming in 2013 with Jeb Burton.

“Austin Cindric has already had success in various forms of racing, and has shown a lot of potential in our Ford F-150 race trucks,” said Keselowski in a press release. “I certainly believe that Chase is ready to take the next step in his career, and we’re excited to have him join the BKR family. He won the ARCA championship in his first full-time season, and he’s proven to have the ability to learn quickly and win races. We’re pleased to give both Austin and Chase the opportunity to compete full-time at a high level in NASCAR.”

Briscoe, 22, enters his rookie season after winning the ARCA Racing Series title behind six race wins.

“It’s an absolutely huge opportunity and such an honor to drive for Brad,” said Briscoe in a press release. “The competition level in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is so high, but I’m going to be in the best equipment out there. It’s really cool to once again be working with the Keselowski family. When I moved to North Carolina three years ago, I was helping Brian and Bob in their shop, so things have come full circle. I’m truly blessed with this opportunity, and I hope to make the most of it. At the end of the day, it’s all about winning races and championships, and that’s what I plan to do.”

Cindric, 18, is the son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric. He has six starts with BKR over the last two seasons. His best result is 15th last November at Phoenix International Raceway.

“This is a massive opportunity from Brad and everyone at BKR who trusts me and believes in my abilities as a driver to move on to the next level for a full season,” said Cindric in a press release. “2017 gets more and more exciting for me with every day that goes by. I’ve only done a handful of one-off races in my brief stock car career, so I’m really looking forward to having the same guys by my side week in and week out. I’ve spent a lot of time at the shop the last few weeks and I know everyone is really excited to get back racing.”

The Truck Series season begins Feb. 24 at Daytona International Speedway.

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Kurt, Kyle Busch come up short in Nations Cup finale at Race of Champions

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 04:  NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch hugs brother Kurt Busch during the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards show at Wynn Las Vegas on December 4, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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After early exits in the first day of the Race of Champion exhibition Saturday in Miami, Kyle and Kurt Busch returned on Sunday in hopes of winning the Nations Cup for the United States of America, but were swept in the finale by Germany’s Sebastian Vettel.

The brothers, representing Team USA NASCAR, were in Group A with USA IndyCar, USA Rally and ROC Factor Canada.

Kurt Busch’s struggles from Saturday continued in his first race against IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe. The Canadian driver beat Kurt Busch by .002 of a second. The NASCAR representative would bounce back in his next race, beating action sports star and former NASCAR driver Travis Pastrana.

In Kyle Busch‘s first race of the day, he faced and beat karting champion Stefan Rzadzinski of Canada. He followed it up by beating Scott Speed.

After six races, Team USA NASCAR and IndyCar had four wins each and faced each other in the semifinal round. But the Busch brothers prevailed over Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi from USA IndyCar to advance to the Nations Cup final against Vettel, who represented Germany by himself.

But Vettel swept the race, betting Kurt then Kyle Busch to claim the Nations Cup. Vettel swept all of his races, finishing Sunday with seven wins.

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