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Upon Further Review: Listening to good advice

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Enough of the lessons, Joey Logano says, he’s ready to win a championship.

Two years ago, he was told to treat the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway like any other race.

“I said, yeah, OK,’’ Logano said in a disbelieving manner.

Instead of following the advice, he hyperfocused on the task, constantly seeking to game plan with crew Todd Gordon.

“You’re looking at every little detail, as you should, but you’ve also got to be able to turn it off, and that’s where I didn’t do that before,’’ Logano said after his win Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway put him in the title race for the second time in three years.

He’s learned that the words given to him two years ago are what he should be following.

“We race to win every week; why should we race differently for a championship, right?’’ said Logano, who seeks his first series title. “We’re racing to win that race, and that’s ultimately going to have a championship attached to that. 

“We’ve just got to do the same thing we did this weekend. We’ve got momentum. We’ve won multiple races. We’ve got on rolls before where you’ve got that momentum and that confidence and it just keeps stacking up like it did last year, and we’re in good position to do that again.’’

Two years ago, Kevin Harvick won the championship and Logano was consoled by those who told him his time would come.

“After the race, everyone told me, you’ve got to lose one to win one, and I thought that was the biggest crock of crap I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said. “But you know what, it’s not the fact that you have to lose one to win one, it’s the fact that maybe it really helped me to just live through it once, and since then, we’ve been in those situations.

“We raced (Sunday) for a championship. We raced in Talladega for a championship. We’ve done this before.

“Homestead (in 2014) was the first time we ever had to do that.  You think about the way that Chase went, you know, we’ve won races in each round, where we never really had our back against the wall or anything. These last few years we’ve been in the position that we’ve had our back up against the wall and had to win, and we’ve been able to do that this year a couple times.’’

NOT A HAIL MARY

While it is easy to label the decision not to pit Denny Hamlin late in Sunday’s race a tremendous gamble, that’s not how crew chief Mike Wheeler saw it. Instead, he viewed it as a move they had to make.

Hamlin was running sixth when the caution flag waved for Martin Truex Jr.’s accident on Lap 257. Hamlin trailed Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — drivers he was racing for a spot in the title race.

Wheeler decided to keep Hamlin on track, while the rest of the field pitted. Hamlin restarted in the lead with Kenseth second, Logano sixth and Busch seventh.

Hamlin fell to second off the restart and stayed there until a debris caution on Lap 267. After that restart, Hamlin fell back, while Kenseth moved into the lead and Logano took second. Hamlin later pitted during overtime because he was close on fuel. He finished seventh, failing to make it to the championship round.

Wheeler explained the decision not to pit on Lap 257:

“At the end of the day we were behind the guys,’’ Wheeler said of those they were racing to make it to the championship round, “so we had to do something different to get ahead of them. We were too equal to beat them straight up without some kind of off-sequence deal.

“We talked about it beforehand. We knew that this was one of those places that tires didn’t matter that much. I think if we don’t get multiple cautions, we actually make it. We ran second that stint. We don’t get any more cautions, we finish second or third and we probably make it in. I don’t say it’s a Hail Mary but it’s definitely an aggressive move to gain track position.’’

THREE LONG YEARS

Phoenix marked the three-year anniversary since Richard Childress Racing last won a Sprint Cup race. The organization is winless in its last 108 Cup races.

RCR’s last win came with Kevin Harvick on Nov. 10, 2013. Austin Dillon has yet to win a Cup race for the organization, Ryan Newman also has not won with the organization, and Paul Menard’s lone victory came in the 2011 Brickyard 400 for the team.

Menard was the team’s top driver Sunday, placing 10th. RCR has placed one driver in the top 10 in six of the nine Chase races.

Car owner Richard Childress acknowledges that work remains for his company.

“We have been disappointed with some of our finishes but the things we have worked on the last several months, I have seen a real good gain in the speed in our cars,’’ he said. “We have been in the right position several times for a win but just couldn’t pull it off.

“I think the people that Eric Warren (director of competition) and Mike Dillon (vice president of competition) have gone out and found and been able to bring in is going to make a huge difference in our competition.

“I think we will be in really good shape next year and we have added Matt Borland (to be Menard’s crew chief in 2017), and we have added two or three new engineers. We also have stepped it up in our engine program in Cup.”

MAKING PROGRESS

Kyle Larson’s third-place finish Sunday marked his best run in the Chase and his second top-10 result in the last five races.

Although eliminated from title contention after the first round, Larson has made progress this season.

His average finish was 22.6 in the season’s first 11 races. Twice he failed to finish races.

In the 11 races since his victory at Michigan, his average finish is 11.9.

“We were so bad to start the year that I felt like our gains were extremely noticeable throughout the first third of the year,’’ Larson said. “Then up until I won at Michigan and a little bit after, I feel like we haven’t gained as much each week as we did earlier in the year.

“We’ve made gains but they haven’t been as big of gains because we’re closer to where we need to be. We haven’t had a whole lot of luck in the last eight races that we’ve run, but we’ve continued to stay positive, work hard and try to make our stuff faster to build the notebook for the offseason and start of next season.”

PIT STOPS

Erik Jones seeks to become the first driver to win a Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series title in back-to-back years this weekend in Miami.

Michael McDowell’s incident after a blown tire set up the overtime finish Sunday at Phoenix. It marked the second time in this Chase he has had an incident that sent a race into overtime. It also happened at Chicagoland Speedway in the Chase opener. In both cases, the driver leading when McDowell had his incident did not win the race in overtime.

— Joey Logano’s victory Sunday was his third of the year. He is the eighth different driver this season to win at least three races. The last time that has happened was 1962.

— Joey Logano also recorded his seventh Chase win since 2014. That is more than any other driver in that period.

— Kevin Harvick’s fourth-place finish was his seventh consecutive top-five result at Phoenix.

Ryan Blaney’s eighth-place finish was his first top-10 result since the opening Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway.

— Average age for the four drivers competing championship round in the Sprint Cup Series is 33.8.

— Average age for the four drivers competing championship round in the Camping World Truck Series is 33.8.

  Average age for the four drivers competing championship round in the Xfinity Series is 28.8

Chase Elliott, AJ Allmendinger unveil Darlington throwback schemes

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Both Chase Elliott and AJ Allmendinger have revealed the paint schemes they’ll drive in the Sept. 3 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Elliott will use his No. 24 Chevrolet to pay tribute to the car his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, drove in his first Cup start.

The light blue look was on his No. 9 car when he started in the Feb. 29, 1976 race at Rockingham Speedway.

The car was revealed on Facebook in the below video.

AJ Allmendinger will pay tribute to two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte with his No. 47 Chevrolet.

The car will resemble the No. 44 Piedmont Airlines Oldsmobile that Labonte drove in during the 198 Cup season when he competed for owner Billy Hagan.

NASCAR America: Felix Sabates: ‘I’m lucky to be here’ after near-death experience from illness last year

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For nearly a month last year Felix Sabates was at death’s door.

The fears were so great that Sabates might not wake up from a coma he spent 29 days in, Chip Ganassi bought a blue suit for the possibility he might have to attend his co-owner’s funeral.

But the 71-year-old made a full recovery through a rehab process that included learning to walk again.

NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty and Sabates have a special relationship. Petty drove the No. 42 car for Sabates’ SABCO Racing for eight years in the 1980s and 1990s, winning six of his eight Cup races for the millionaire owner from Cuba.

Sabates sat down with Petty to discuss the ordeal, which began in January 2016 when Sabates began feeling ill during the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I came home and woke up the next morning and I (couldn’t) breath,” said Sabates, who drove himself to the hospital. “The minute they saw me I was in intensive care.”

Sabates was in the hospital for two and half weeks before he was released, but Sabates “should’ve know I wasn’t cured.”

The Chip Ganassi Racing co-owner returned to his usual grind until it caught up to him in August.

“My blood pressure was through the roof, my oxygen level was 55, which you should be dead then,” recalled Sabates, who has no memory of a three-month stretch. “They thought was I was brain-dead. They were pretty much going to disconnect me. So 4 o’clock in the morning, they took my tubes out.”

That’s when Sabates began the process of waking up.

“I’m lucky to be here,” said Sabates, who aside from being back at the track is also back to playing golf.

“I used to worry about little things,’ Sabates said. “Now I don’t even worry about big things.”

The full feature will air Sunday on Countdown to Green, which begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN before the Cup race at Pocono.

NASCAR America: Ryan Blaney glad Team Penske news is finally out in the open

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On Wednesday it was finally announced that Ryan Blaney would move from Wood Brothers Racing to Team Penske full-time next year in the Cup Series in the No. 12 Ford while Paul Menard will take over the No. 21 Ford.

NASCAR America’s Dave Burns caught up with Blaney on Thursday. Blaney was happy that his 2018 plans were finally public knowledge.

Blaney also acknowledged how a technical alliance between the two teams helped Wood Brothers Racing return to a competition level that allowed Blaney to get his first Cup win this season earlier this year.

“That was a big deal,” Blaney said. “That was getting us to where we could run a full-time season. That was really helpful not only to me but to (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins, will be coming with me to the 12 car.”

Blaney has been driving for Team Penske part-time in the Xfinity Series since 2012.

“It’s been nice to get the news and tell everybody finally about what we’re doing,” Blaney said. “But mainly we’re trying to finish this year out strong with the Wood Brothers, getting their 100th win, that’s really big. That’s on my bucket list for this year and getting as far as we can in the playoffs.”

The No. 21 team returns to Pocono Raceway this weekend, the site of Blaney’s first Cup win last month.

Watch the video for the full interview.

Numbers add up for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Pocono

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Just six races remain for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make the playoffs in his final NASCAR Cup season.

Earnhardt is ranked 22nd in the NASCAR Cup standings and there are only four open positions — that could shrink further with additional first-time winners in 2017 in the next six races — left for winless drivers to qualify for the 16-driver playoffs strictly on points.

As a result, Earnhardt and his fans know that with each passing race where the No. 88 remains winless, the urgency to win even just one race to make the 10-race playoffs increases exponentially.

Junior’s fans may be heartened to hear some positive tidbits about his chances this weekend at Pocono Raceway, courtesy of RacingInsights.com.

  • Did you know that during Junior’s nine-plus year tenure with Hendrick Motorsports, he’s earned the most top-fives at Daytona (seven in 20 starts) and … this may come as a surprise … at Pocono (seven in 18 starts).
  • Earnhardt also has six top fives both at Martinsville and Michigan (18 starts each), and five top fives at Phoenix and Talladega (also 18 starts each).
  • Of Hendrick Motorsports’ last 10 wins, Jimmie Johnson has won eight, Kasey Kahne won last Sunday’s Brickyard 400 and Earnhardt’s most recent Cup win came on Nov. 15, 2015 at Phoenix Raceway.
  • Earnhardt has gone 39 races since his last win.
  • Earnhardt won both races at Pocono in 2014. In the four races he’s been in since then, he’s finished fourth (mid-summer 2015) second (early 2016 race) — meaning he’s had four top-five finishes in his last six starts at the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
  • He also was 11th in the early 2015 race there. His only finish lower than 11th came last month at Pocono when he completed just 58 of the scheduled 160 laps before his motor expired.
  • In 34 career Cup starts at the Tricky Triangle, Earnhardt has two wins, 11 top fives, 15 top 10s and one pole.
  • Earnhardt is ranked sixth for most laps led by winless drivers this season, with 24 laps led. By comparison, Kyle Busch has led 1,040 laps, the most of all winless drivers in 2017.

Add all those elements together and could Junior’s best chance up to now to win and lock in a playoff berth come this Sunday?

We’ll soon find out.

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