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Circle Sport and The Motorsports Group merge for 2017 effort

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Joe Falk and Curtis Key Sr. have merged their respective operations to field a single entry in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season.

The team will be led by Falk, who brings a charter to the partnership. Falk had been a part of the Circle Sport – Leavine Family Racing effort in 2016, which fielded a car that was split between Ty Dillon and Michael McDowell.

However, NASCAR viewed the alliance as Falk having leased his Charter to Bob Leavine. It resulted in Falk needing to use the Charter this season or sell it.

In 2016, Key also fielded a single car effort. The No. 30 qualified for 30 of the 36 races with drivers Gray Gaulding and Josh Wise.

Under the Falk and Key partnership, the team will field the No. 33 Chevrolet. Falk’s charter guarantees the team, with a driver to be announced in the coming weeks, will compete in every Cup Series race.

“It’s great to join forces with Curtis Key, I’ve known him for a very long time and know we share the same feelings about racing,” Falk said in a team release.

Veteran crew chief Pat Tryson will oversee the effort. Tryson has 541 starts at the Cup level and eight career wins. Throughout his career, Tryson has worked with drivers such as Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Kurt Busch, and Martin Truex Jr.

Tryson also previously worked with The Motorsports Group when the team made the transition into the Cup Series in 2015.

“It’s great to have Pat back with us, he was instrumental when we got started with our Cup program and we look forward to his insight in 2017,” said Key.

The team will operate out of The Motorsports Group shop in Mooresville, North Carolina.

Erik Jones fastest in 1st of 2 Cup practices at Fontana; Harvick, Ragan hit wall

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NASCAR Cup rookie Erik Jones was fastest in the first of two practice sessions Saturday at Auto Club Speedway in preparation for Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

Jones drove his No. 77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota to the top of the speed charts at the Fontana, California track with a best lap of 187.251, the only driver to exceed 187 mph.

Jones was followed by Chase Elliott (186.843), Ryan Newman (186.732), Jimmie Johnson (186.384) and Brad Keselowski (186.292).

There were two incidents of note during the session:

* With just over nine minutes remaining in the practice session, Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet hit hard into the outside retaining wall, sustaining damage on the right side.

However, the team chose to repair the damage rather than go to a backup car.

Prior to the incident, Harvick’s car was sixth-fastest (186.128 mph).

* In the final two minutes, David Ragan spun and impacted the Turn 3 wall. It appeared something came loose from under Ragan’s car before impact.

Given the amount of damage, Ragan will likely have to go to a backup car.

Click here for how Saturday’s first of two practice sessions played out:

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Danica Patrick: ‘NASCAR makes a really big mistake of fining for some stuff’

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Danica Patrick wants her money back. Or she at least wants to know what it bought.

Fined $70,000 over the past 17 months for intentionally wrecking a rival driver under caution and tossing and walking onto the track to gesture at another, Patrick was asked Friday at Auto Club Speedway how she felt about Austin Dillon avoiding a fine for crashing Cole Custer under caution at Phoenix.

Give me my money back,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “I think NASCAR makes a really big mistake of fining for some stuff, especially something that happens in the car because it makes for good TV, just like fights and all that stuff.  We can handle it.

“I think it’s a mistake.  I might be speaking too much, but I’ve been fined a few times, and I think that it makes for good TV, and I think that we handle it out on the track ourselves.”

NASCAR has said it funnels the fine payments to the NASCAR Foundation, which supports several charitable organizations.

Patrick would prefer NASCAR avoid fining everyone but is curious about how the money gets earmarked.

“I would actually rather know what it did,” she said. “I would actually love to see like the playground that got built for it, or homeless people that got food.  I would like to see actually what the money does for fines because it’s supposed to go to charity, right?  So what does it really do?  I would like to see that.”

Today’s Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

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After four races, Xfinity Series regulars have won twice (Ryan Reed at Daytona and Justin Allgaier at Phoenix) and Cup drivers have won twice (Kyle Busch at Atlanta and Joey Logano at Las Vegas). The Xfinity Series regulars will look to take the lead in that category at Auto Club Speedway.

Here are the particulars for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Stu Crum, COO of Service King, will give the command for drivers to start engines at 4:07 p.m. ET. The green flag is scheduled for 4:16 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 150 laps (300 miles) around the 2-mile oval.

PRERACE SCHEDULE: The Xfinity garage opens at 10 a.m. The drivers meeting is at 2:15 p.m. Driver introductions are at 3:35 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Karen Waldrup will perform the Anthem at 4:01 p.m.

TV/RADIO: Fox Sports 1 will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Its coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race on radio and at mrn.com. MRN’s coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts 63 degrees at race time with a 7 percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST YEAR: Austin Dillon took the lead on a wild final lap and went on to win. Kyle Busch led and cut a tire. Daniel Suarez took the lead but ran out of fuel. Busch managed to retake the lead. Dillon got by Busch for the lead in Turn 4 after hitting the wall. Busch finished second and Darrell Wallace Jr. was third.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying at 12:30 p.m.

NASCAR’s Saturday schedule at Auto Club Speedway

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The Xfinity Series ends its part of the “West Coast swing” today with the Service King 300.

But the day is filled with Cup Series practice and Xfinity qualifying prior to the race.

Here is the full schedule for the day with TV and radio info.

All times are Eastern.

Saturday, March 25

10 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

10 a.m. – 6 p.m. – Cup garage open

11:30 a.m. – 12:25 p.m. – Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

12:30 p.m. – Xfinity qualifying; single vehicle/two rounds (FS1)

2:15 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

2:30 – 3:20 p.m. – Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

3:30 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

4 p.m. – Service King 300 Xfinity race; 150 laps/300 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)