Joe Gibbs Racing begins new era with birthday boy Daniel Suarez

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Depending on how you look at it, Daniel Suarez‘ best birthday gift came either four days late or one year early.

About 10 minutes after the Carl Edwards era in the No. 19 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing ended, the Suarez era began.

Suarez, who turned 25 on Jan. 7, was introduced as Edwards’ successor in a press conference at the team’s headquarters Wednesday morning.

“I wasn’t expecting to be in this position right now,” said Suarez, who made history in 2016 by becoming the first foreign-born driver to win a national NASCAR title, capturing the Xfinity championship. “It’s been an amazing time. This is hard to believe that I’m in this position. We started all this dream 10 years ago with NASCAR, and right now to be in this position, to be in this opportunity is just something amazing for me and for everyone that has been helping me.”

Suarez said he expected to make the jump to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series next year.

While the rest of the NASCAR community had spent the last 24 hours getting caught up on Edwards’ January surprise, the native of Monterrey, Mexico, had been in on the secret for a while. At some point after Christmas, Suarez was informed of the biggest news of his career during lunch with his girlfriend, Silvia, and her family.

“I was actually in the middle of everything, and I got a call,” Suarez recalled. “I had to jump out of the middle of lunch, and then I never came back after 40 minutes. And then when I came back, Silvia and her parents, they were asking me what was going on because I came back with a (big smile). So they were asking me what was going on. Well, really I wasn’t able to say anything, so I didn’t say anything.”

But on Wednesday, 46 days before the Daytona 500 and his first start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Suarez could say everything.

“Very, very happy for this opportunity,” Suarez said. “It’s something that we really were waiting for. It came a little bit sooner than what we were expecting, but I think we are ready, and we’re ready to go, and we are ready to start learning about everything and ready to perform well.”

Suarez has already been exposed to the impact of his historic NASCAR title, which came after he won three Xfinity races. Suarez came face-to-face with it when he attended an exhibition NASCAR Mexico Series race earlier in the offseason in Mexico City.

“I was expecting a good welcome as a champion, but what I lived in that moment, just, I don’t know, five, six hours, it was just unbelievable,” Suarez said. “I felt like I was like … a rock star. Everyone was thanking me and everyone was asking me for pictures. Actually some big names in México, they were asking me for pictures, where normally three years ago I was asking them for pictures. So it was something huge.”

For Joe Gibbs, the alumni of the NASCAR Next and Drive for Diversity program was “the obvious choice” to fill the unexpected vacancy created by Edwards.

Gibbs championed the two years of work Suarez put in driving in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series and his selflessness.

“We have a lot of things where we have sponsors come in here and do different two‑ and three‑day events, and we’d be down at the bowling alley with a sponsor that had nothing to do with Daniel,” Gibbs said. “I’d turn around and there he is, he’s bowling. Or he’s at the pit and driving the go‑karts and stuff like that.”

Even with the state of flux Edwards is now in, Gibbs hopes the driver who won five races for him in two Cup seasons will be part of Suarez’s transition.

“What we have discussed with (Edwards) is continuing to work with us and continuing to work inside of NASCAR, and we’ve got some things coming up,” Gibbs said, adding he hopes Edwards can attend Suarez’s first test later this month at Phoenix International Raceway.

“He’s going to help Daniel and our support group, but then there’s going to be other things that we’ve kind of been thinking about with Carl. So hopefully that’s what we’ll see in the future going forward.”

Suarez’ first time in the No 19 car is still 19 days away, but he’s itching to get started.

“I can’t wait to drive that car,” Suarez said. “I wish I could take it to the street right now.”

Martin Truex Jr. wins at Kansas; Kenseth, Larson, McMurray, Stenhouse Jr. eliminated

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Given he already was locked into the upcoming Round of 8 in the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Martin Truex Jr. had nothing to lose in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 — so he went out and won his third race of the playoffs and seventh race of the season.

Truex led 89 laps to capture the win at Kansas Speedway, his second win there this season and an uncanny sixth win on a 1.5-mile track this season. His seventh win was on the road course at Watkins Glen.

Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, who was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, finished second, followed by Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin.

Sunday’s race was a cut-off race for the Round of 12. The four drivers that were eliminated from advancing to the Round 8 semifinal round were Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Larson.

Those advancing to the Round of 8 are Truex, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch.

STAGE WINNERS: Kyle Busch won Stage 1, Denny Hamlin won Stage 2.

Among incidents in the scheduled 167 laps of the final stage:

* Jimmie Johnson spun coming out of Turn 4 on Lap 187. He tore up a good chunk of the frontstretch grass but did not hit any other cars. He brought his car to pit road to fix some damage to the hood, strapped on four new tires and fuel and returned to the track. Shortly after the restart on Lap 192, Johnson spun again, clipping the Turn 3 wall and flatspotted all four of his tires.

* A big wreck on the restart on Lap 197 involved a number of cars, including playoff contenders Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray. The incident brought out a red flag race stoppage. The wreck occurred when Erik Jones got loose, turned right and head-on into the wall, and collected a number of other drivers including Daniel Suarez, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Danica Patrick, Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer.

* Kenseth suffered a huge penalty on the ensuing pit stop. Because he had seven crew men over the wall, violating the damaged vehicle policy, NASCAR ruled Kenseth was out of the race. As a result, he will not advance to the Round of 8 and has been eliminated from the playoffs in his final season with Joe Gibbs Racing.

* As for McMurray, his car could not be repaired and his championship hopes are done. “We just unfortunately had two bad races in a row and couldn’t do nothing about it,” McMurray told NBCSN. “You race all day to the end and we didn’t make it today.”

We’ll have more information, including full results and updated standings, shortly. Please check back soon.

Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray eliminated from race after massive Lap 198 crash

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Matt Kenseth and fellow playoff driver Jamie McMurray were involved in a 10-car crash on Lap 198 of the elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

The crash began when Erik Jones got loose, spun and began collecting cars.

The crash caused a red flag.

Kenseth was ruled out of the race after too many crew members went over the wall to repair his No. 20 Toyota. That effectively eliminates the Joe Gibbs Racing driver from contending for the championship. McMurray is also eliminated from contention.

“I don’t know what any of the rules are,” Kenseth told NBCSN. “It seems like we’ve got a lot of stuff that kind of gets changed so often I honestly can’t keep up with it. My head kind of spins, from putting lug nuts on out of pit boxes to one too many guys over the wall, you’re not allowed to race anymore. I just don’t get it to be honest with you. I really don’t have a lot good to say right now. I’m more than disappointed.”

The crash involved Jones, Kenseth, McMurray, Daniel Suarez, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola, Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne.

Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliffe, blamed the mistake on miscommunication and simply not counting the number of crew members who were over the wall.

“We missed a head count there. It’s a shame that that’s a rule that takes competitors out of an opportunity for the championship,” Ratcliffe said. “Somebody just missed the call there or I didn’t communicate properly. Typically it boils down to communication and I think that’s what happened there.”

Said McMurray: “I was really looking forward to just getting to the end of the race. Like I said earlier, we just needed the pit stops to go our way or the strategy to get shook up, and it was kind of happening right there. You just hope that you’re going to be on the right end of the strategy. And then if the race would have gone long, we had one of the best cars on the long runs. But, you just don’t know. You race all day to the end, and we just didn’t make it today.”

Jimmie Johnson spins twice early in final stage of Kansas elimination race

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In danger of not advancing to the third round of the playoffs, Jimmie Johnson spun on the front stretch on Lap 189 of the elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

The No. 48 slid down the track and into the infield grass, which had been drenched in rain overnight.

“I got loose,” Johnson told his team over the radio.

After undergoing repairs on pit road, Johnson returned to the track. But his misfortune continued on the ensuing restart when he again spun, this time in Turn 3 while running in the high lane.

Johnson pitted again and returned to the track before a large, multi-car wreck unfolded on the restart, which Johnson was able to avoid.

Johnson entered the race in the last transfer spot, seven points above ninth.

Denny Hamlin stays out on old tires in one-lap shootout, captures Stage 2 at Kansas

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In a one-lap shootout to wrap up Stage 2, Denny Hamlin on old tires held off the rest of the field to win the middle stage of Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kentucky Speedway.

Kevin Harvick (on new tires) was second, followed by Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch (also on new tires).

The younger Busch brother has dominated the race thus far, winning Stage 1, leading 57 laps in Stage 2 and a total of 94 laps of the first 180 laps in the scheduled 267-lap event.

Hamlin and Keselowski were both penalized for speeding on pit road after the stage ended.

Among incidents during Stage 2:

* Martin Truex Jr. came off Turn 4 and made an abrupt entry onto pit road on Lap 92 after complaining of a vibration in his Toyota, potentially from a loose wheel. Truex took four tires and fuel and returned to the track.

* Denny Hamlin misunderstood a command from crew chief Mike Wheeler on pit road during his stop on Lap 128. After the jack dropped, Hamlin hesitated because he thought he heard Wheeler say “hold up” on the team radio. Wheeler actually said “Hard out.” The miscue cost Hamlin a couple of seconds and returned to the track in 17th position.

* Brett Moffitt hit the outside wall for the second time in the race on Lap 156, bringing out the caution in the waning moments of Stage 2 to set up the one-lap shootout. He also hit the wall on Lap 46 in Stage 1.