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Ford executive encouraged by changes at Roush Fenway Racing

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CONCORD, N.C. — The Global Director of Ford Performance says he’s optimistic Roush Fenway Racing will be more competitive this season because of leadership changes that “embrace becoming more of an engineering-led organization.’’

Roush Fenway Racing has been shut out of NASCAR’s playoffs each of the past two seasons and last won a race in 2014.

Ford’s Dave Pericak said Wednesday at the Ford Performance Technical Center that Roush Fenway Racing is in a better position to take advantage of Ford’s technical support after offseason changes.

“I think Roush has made all of the right, now, decisions and changes within their organization to truly embrace becoming more of an engineering-led organization and putting the technology into these cars as opposed to just bolting some stuff together and going out on the racetrack,’’ Pericak told NBC Sports.

“I think there has been a huge acknowledgement on their side that there has to be a shift within their own organization, a shift within their leadership. We’ve helped them on a technical side of things to get their equipment up to speed. I’m optimistic that this year you’re going to see all of that coming together and you should see better performance out of that Roush organization.’’

Roush Fenway Racing opens the season with new personnel in executive levels. The team announced in late November that Kevin Kidd, who had been the organization’s Cup team manager, would become the competition director, and Tommy Wheeler, who oversaw the production of the organization’s Cup and Xfinity cars, would be the team’s operations director. The team also announced that Robbie Reiser, who had been general manager, was being reassigned.

The organization also is smaller this season. Roush downsized to a two-car operation with the departure of Greg Biffle. The team will have Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne as drivers and loaned Chris Buescher to JTG Daugherty, a Chevrolet team, because there wasn’t a proper place to put him with a Ford team this year.

Stenhouse showed signs of progress early last season, climbing to 13th the points after the season’s fifth race before finishing the year 21st. Bayne placed 22nd and Biffle 23rd. The three drivers combined for zero wins, seven top-five and 14 top-10 finishes.

The top-five and top-10 results were an increase from the 2015 season. Roush’s drivers combined for four top fives and nine top 10s that season.

Roush is one of two Ford teams downsizing this year. Richard Petty Motorsports will field one entry this year instead of two. Pericak said such moves could help both teams.

“The downsizing that you’ve seen is a way for us to re-focus those teams and get back to the fundamentals and get them back on the right path,” Pericak said. “You don’t want to have so much going on that you can’t focus in areas that you need to focus and fix what you need.’’

Something else that could help Roush and RPM is the addition of Stewart-Haas Racing to the Ford camp. The move gives Ford two top-tier teams in SHR and Team Penske. Some of the information gleaned by those teams can be shared.

“I think when you look at that, it’s a very positive thing to bring that level of competition to your group, everyone is going to benefit from that,’’ Pericak said. “And the other thing we’ve been working strongly on is that one Ford approach, sharing where sharing makes sense.’’

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Kyle Busch wins pole for Truck Series race at Atlanta

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Kyle Busch won the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, his second Truck Series pole at the track.

Driving his No 4. Toyota, Busch put down a top speed of 179.743 mph.

Matt Crafton qualified second with a speed of 179.220 mph.

“My lap was pretty good, certainly felt more stuck (to the track) the first time around than the second time around,” Busch told Fox Sports 1. “We even picked up a little bit of time on that second one. … We were really, really tight here last year and made some good changes to it through the offseason with notes and things and coming back here better prepared.”

The top five is completed by Noah Gragson (179.214), Spencer Davis (178.862) and Justin Haley (178.775).

Gragson and Davis give Kyle Busch Motorsports three of the first four starting spots.

Johnny Sauter, who won last week at Daytona, will start ninth.

Busch’s pole is his second of the weekend. He also won the pole for Sunday’s Cup Series race.

The Active Pest Control 200 begins at 4:30 p.m. ET on FS1.

Click here for the starting lineup.

Christopher Bell on Xfinity pole at Atlanta

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HAMPTON, Georgia — Rookie Christopher Bell qualified first for Saturday’s Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway with a 181.176-mph lap in his No. 20 Toyota.

it’s the second pole in 10 starts for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.

Joey Logano was second in his No. 22 Ford, followed by John Hunter Nemechek, Cole Custer and Kevin Harvick.

Click here for the Xfinity Series qualifying results and click here for the Xfinity lineup by row.

The Xfinity race will start at 2:16 p.m. ET, starting a doubleheader with the truck series at Atlanta.

Sunday’s Atlanta race moved to 1:06 p.m. ET start with threat of weather

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HAMPTON, Georgia – The threat of inclement weather has moved up the start of Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway by an hour.

NASCAR announced Saturday morning that the green flag will fall on the second race of the 2018 season at 1:06 p.m. ET.

Races become official after the second stage. The second stage of Sunday’s 500-mile race will end on Lap 170 of 325.

The wunderground.com site calls for an 80 percent chance of rain Sunday with the forecast worsening from 10 a.m.

Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson top list of drivers docked practice

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HAMPTON, Georgia — Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson both will be held during the final Cup Series practice Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Because his No. 78 Toyota failed to clear prequalifying inspection three times Friday, Truex will miss the final 30 minutes of the 80-minute session that will begin at noon ET. Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet will be out for the last 15 minutes because it failed the new Optical Scanning Station twice.

Harrison Rhodes also will miss 15 minutes for failing inspection twice. Jeffrey Earnhardt, Gray Gaulding Jr., Michael McDowell and Cole Whitt each will miss 15 minutes because they were late to qualifying inspection.

NASCAR changed its policy on how practice holds will be conducted this season. Instead of serving the penalty in the pits at the start of the session, drivers will park their cars for the length of the penalty up until the end of the session.