Daniel Suarez: ‘Everything has been happening very fast’

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Daniel Suarez doesn’t remember his first lap in a NASCAR Cup car, but he remembers the second.

“My second lap I was sideways, I can tell you that,” Suarez told NBC Sports in a Wednesday phone interview. “I’m one of those drivers I think I’m a little smart, but I drive the car (hard) every lap, I was trying to do it the second lap, which wasn’t very smart.”

Suarez recalled the experience while in Atlanta for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion’s Tour, or as Suarez called it, “the last day … to celebrate”  his 2016 Xfinity title.

Suarez was just a week removed from his first time ever driving a Cup car, in a organizational test at Phoenix Raceway. It was the first time Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 19 team was concerned about Suarez instead of Carl Edwards, who announced in January he was stepping away from the sport.

The two-day test came 20 days after Suarez was announced as replacing Edwards. That was 54 days after Suarez became the first foreign-born driver to win a title in one of NASCAR’s national series.

It’s been a hectic month for Suarez, who been busy with the NASCAR Media Tour, photo shoots and other sponsor duties Edwards had already done in December.

“Everything has been happening very fast, but it’s been very good,” Suarez said. “Getting to know what it’s like to a part of a Cup team. It’s very different than the Xfinity team. Trying to learn everything as quick as possible, with the first race just around the corner next weekend. We have to put ourselves into speed to get that race and try to be strong.”

Suarez’ first Cup action will come in the Advanced Auto Part Clash on Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway, but his Cup acclimation began on the 1-mile Phoenix Raceway. The 25-year-old did his best to treat the first day of the rest of his career like any other.

“I tried to just do it,” Suarez said. “Not think too much about it and try to do it. Actually, it was very good. It was a super productive test with the 19 Cup crew. I felt like we learned a lot from each other, the communication, our chemistry. We have a lot of confidence that we’re going to have a very, very positive 2017 season starting in Daytona next week.”

His learning process began with the help of his predecessor. Edwards, a two-time winner at Phoenix, was on hand to provide any insight that could help Suarez get a boost on his rookie season.

“He told me a lot of advice about Phoenix in the Cup car,” Suarez said. “It’s something very different than from what I’m used to. It was good to have advice from someone like him. He’s very good, he has a lot of wins there. It was good to have him there the first day of the test. He helped us to move forward faster than normal.”

If the last two months were fast for Suarez, it only will escalate next week as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series arrives at Daytona. In the last two years, Suarez has made six starts on the 2.5-mile superspeedway in the Xfinity and Truck Series.

What lesson Suarez has learned from those races will he take with him into the biggest race week of his career?

“I’ve learned one thing, that patience is very important,” Suarez said. “Patience pays back most of the time.”

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Matt Kenseth wrecks out of Auto Club 400 on late restart

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Matt Kenseth crashed out of the Auto Club 400 on a restart with 16 laps remaining in the race at Auto Club Speedway.

Kenseth had restarted fourth following a caution for an incident involving Gray Gaulding.

Kenseth was in the middle groove exiting Turn 2 when he was tapped from behind by Martin Truex Jr. and slid toward the inside wall, which his No. 20 Toyota hit hard. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was cleared and released from the infield care center.

It is Kenseth’s third DNF in the first five races of the season and his second in as many races. He had four in all of 2016.

Kenseth entered the race 20th in the point standings.

Martin Truex Jr. has commanding performance in Stage 2 win at Fontana

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Martin Truex Jr. has taken over as the most dominating driver in today’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

After pole-sitter Kyle Larson won the first 60-lap stage, Truex won Stage 2. During the session, Truex’s car showed supremacy with nearly a seven-second lead in the closing laps of the stage.

Truex has now won three of the last six stages, having captured both stages two weeks ago en route to his overall race win at Las Vegas.

Larson is in second place, followed by Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.

There has been just two cautions in the race – both coming in Stage 1.

We now move to the final stage, an 80-lap shootout to determine the race winner.

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Kyle Larson wins Stage 1 of Auto Club 400 at Fontana

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Pole-sitter Kyle Larson is almost one-third of the way to winning Sunday’s Auto Club 400. The California native won Stage 1 of the race at his home-state Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles.

Larson (43 laps) and Martin Truex Jr. (12 laps) have led the majority of the laps during the opening 60-lap segment. That segment will be followed by another 60-lap segment, and then an 80-lap final section for 200 laps (400 miles) around the 2-mile low-banked track.

It was Larson’s first stage win of the 2017 season under the new enhanced scoring format in the NASCAR Cup Series. Larson has finished runner-up in each of the last three races and four of the last five (dating back to the 2016 season finale). He has just one career Cup win, last year at Michigan.

Truex is running second, followed by Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch.

Sixth through 10th are Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin.

Each of the top 10 finishers in Stage 1 will earn stage points in the NASCAR Cup standings.

Two incidents of note occurred early in the race, both involving Brad Keselowski:

* On the first lap, Keselowski’s car suffered left rear damage when several cars were involved in an accordion-like wreck. Others involved included Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, but there was no caution called.

* Keselowski continued on without repairing the damage and was spun out on Lap 3 when he was hit from behind by Jimmie Johnson, causing further damage to Keselowski’s Ford Fusion. The caution came out for Laps 5 through 7. Johnson claimed there was little or no damage over his team radio, but Johnson has continued to have struggles this weekend. He’s running 32nd, one lap down.

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Bad race start results in damaged cars for Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick

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A bad start by the inside lane at the beginning of the Auto Club 400 resulted in damage to the cars of Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman.

Denny Hamlin struggled to get to speed at the drop of the green flag, causing the first few rows of cars to bunch up. It resulted in Newman making contact with Keselowski’s left rear and causing damage. Harvick then ran into Newman as the inside bottlenecked.

On Lap 4, after falling back to 17th, Keselowski was hit from behind by Jimmie Johnson on the front stretch, which sent the No. 2 car spinning through the infield grass. Keselowski, the Atlanta winner, was 19th and the first car a lap down when the first stage ended.

During pit stops in the resulting caution, large amounts of tape were put on the front bumper and grille of Harvick’s car and the right-front fender of Newman’s.

With 35 laps left in the first 60-lap stage, Harvick was forced to pit for a flat right-rear tire. He now runs in 28th, a lap down. Newman, who won last week at Phoenix, a lap down in 22nd.

Johnson, a six-time Auto Club winner and the defending winner, was told his No. 48 had damage that could easily be fixed in the pits.  He runs in 20th a lap down. Johnson is winless this season.