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.

Kyle Larson fastest in final practice for Coca-Cola 600

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kyle Larson topped the final practice session for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 with a speed at 186.400 mph.

The Cup points leader, Larson will start 39th in the race because his No. 42 Chevrolet didn’t clear inspection in time to qualify.

Ryan Blaney (185.861), Matt Kenseth (185.046), Kurt Busch (184.856) and Erik Jones (184.818) rounded out the top five.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was seventh fastest at 184.433 mph. Pole-sitter Kevin Harvick was 20th fastest at 182.648 mph.

Jimmie Johnson recorded the most laps in the session with 47.

Jamie McMurray had the best 10-lap average at 180.914 mph.

The session was stopped for a caution once after Brad Keselowski spun exiting Turn 4.

Click here for the full practice report.

Justin Allgaier wins pole for Charlotte Xfinity race

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CONCORD, N.C. — Justin Allgaier won the pole for the Xfinity Series’ Hisense 4K TV 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

With a speed at 182.488 mph, Allgaier earned his fifth Xfinity pole and his first since the March 2013 race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Allgaier is joined on the front row by Austin Dillon (181.519).

The top five was completed by Ryan Blaney (181.378), Daniel Hemric (181.324) and Kevin Harvick (181.245).

Christopher Bell will start seventh in his first Xfinity race.

Brad Keselowski and Dakoda Armstrong will start from the rear after not passing inspection in time to qualify.

Click here for full qualifying results.

Ryan Blaney leads second Coke 600 practice

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CONCORD, N.C. — Ryan Blaney posted the top speed in the second practice session for the Coca-Cola 600.

Blaney’s No. 21 Ford produced a speed of 188.055 mph Saturday morning around Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The top five was filled out by Erik Jones (187.598 mph), Martin Truex Jr. (187.084), Daniel Suarez (186.838) and Trevor Bayne (186.239).

Pole-sitter Kevin Harvick was ninth fastest at 185.567 mph. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 14th quickest at 185.141 mph.

Kyle Busch recorded the most laps in the session with 48.

Click here for the full practice report.

Eight teams lose 15 minutes of Coke 600 practice for failing pre-qualifying inspection

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CONCORD, N.C. — Eight Cup teams were held 15 minutes during Coca-Cola 600 practice today for failing pre-qualifying inspection on Thursday

Drivers include Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, David Ragan, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Corey LaJoie and Chris Buescher.

Buescher’s team also loses pit selection for Sunday’s race because it failed inspection three times.

Larson and LaJoie’s loss of practice time comes after neither qualified Thuraday because their cars didn’t clear inspection in time.