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Learning on the go: Rookie Daniel Suarez hopes homework pays off in Clash

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Rookie Daniel Suarez’s goal for tonight’s Advance Auto Parts Clash is simple.

“I need to be smart, first of all, and then make moves,’’ he told NBC Sports in his motor coach Saturday morning at Daytona International Speedway. “I’m not planning to just ride there in the back and be safe. I need to make moves to learn for next weekend. Sometimes you make mistakes when that happens, but that’s how you learn.’’

Since the Jan. 11 announcement that he was taking over the No. 19 ride at Joe Gibbs Racing for Carl Edwards, Suarez has been learning. He’s never raced in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The cars are new. Many of the drivers are new. So are the race lengths.

Suarez’s homework has included hours of film work, meetings, data reports and personal training. Add media duties and the reigning Xfinity champion has had little free time.

This just only the beginning.

MORE: Start time, lineup and more for the Clash

That’s plenty to learn. He’ll get quite an experience in tonight’s 17-car Clash.

“I think his biggest challenge is going to be these cars are aerodynamically way different than the Xfinity car,’’ teammate Denny Hamlin said. “The Xfinity cars, what you need to do to go fast in them is push each other. These cars, it’s not pushing. It’s getting close but not pushing.

“There’s a lot of different side-to-side characteristics of these cars that are way different. The only way he’s going to get better at that is go out and practice and get as many laps as he can.

“We’ve seen in years past rookies have trouble in (the Daytona 500) — a lot of it because they haven’t been put into those situations three-wide middle and middle of the day when the car is not handling well —and they end up wrecking. It could happen to Daniel, but it has happened to a lot of great ones before him.’’

While there’s only so much Suarez can study — he’ll have to experience much on his own — he’s still done what he can to be ready.

It helps that he went for JGR to the organizational test Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Phoenix, learning about the nuances of the car from the digital dash to how it handles. Edwards was there to lend a hand. Suarez also looked at the data of fellow rookie Erik Jones, who is with Furniture Row Racing, a fellow Toyota team.

“We were able to share some good information and move forward and just to learn a little bit about where he was faster and where I was faster and why,’’ Suarez said. “You have so many tools to help you to learn faster.’’

He studied film, examined in-car video and other segments of races, to see how the track changes during a race, what drivers do to pass or move around. Suarez has spent about six hours studying film for Daytona. He also had mountains of data reports to go through. 

“I have more information, I have more data and I have more teammates,’’ Suarez said. “There’s a lot going on. The base of doing things is the same, doing your stuff, go back to the team and share your information.’’

Teammates laud Suarez for the amount of homework he’s done to get to this point. Kyle Busch has joked about how often Suarez has reached out to him to seek advice.

“He knows that he needs to learn an awful lot, and he’s got a good head on his shoulders,’’ Busch told NBC Sports of Suarez. “He comes and asks a ton of questions. He’s always on the phone or coming up and seeing me in person asking me advice, asking me this or that or whatever might be coming up next for him and trying to learn and trying to get better.

“He’s not one of these young kids that comes in and thinks he knows everything and doesn’t need any help and then all of a sudden you don’t see them in two or three years.’’

One thing Suarez hasn’t changed is his workouts even with running longer races. Cup races are often at least 200 miles longer than an Xfinity race. Suarez is confident he’s ready for 500-mile races, including next weekend’s Daytona 500.

“I feel like I’m in good shape to do this,’’ Suarez said. “As soon as I hit the race track for a full race is when I’m going to see exactly where I’m at.’’

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. defends Kyle Busch’s surly mood after the Coca-Cola 600

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CONCORD, N.C. – A second-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 left Kyle Busch in an irate mood, which is perfectly fine, according to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

A seemingly agitated Busch, cupping his face in his hands after sitting down, entered the media center at Charlotte Motor Speedway Center shortly after 12:30 a.m. Sunday. It was roughly 10 minutes after Austin Dillon scored the first victory of his career in NASCAR’s premier series by stretching his final tank of fuel for 70 laps.

Was Busch surprised that Dillon made the checkered flag? What did it mean for a driver to get his first win?

“I’m not surprised about anything,” Busch snapped. “Congratulations.”

He dropped the mic on the dais. There were no further questions.

Shortly afterward on Twitter, Earnhardt took up for his peer (whom he replaced at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008).

Busch, who hasn’t won since last July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (a span of 28 races) gave more elaborate answers shortly after exiting his No. 18 Toyota, which finished 0.835 seconds behind Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet.

He apparently didn’t realize until late in the race that his pass of Martin Truex Jr. (who led a race-high 233 laps) with a lap remaining was for second instead of the victory.

“This M&M’s Camry was awesome tonight,” Busch said. “It was just super fast. I mean we had one of the fastest cars all night long and then (Truex) was probably the fastest. There at the end, somehow we ran him down. You know he got a straightaway out on us, but there that last 100 laps we were able to get back to him and pass him so you know that was promising for us there at the end in order to get a second-place finish, but man just so, so disappointed.

“I don’t know. We ran our own race. We did what we needed to do and it wasn’t – it wasn’t the right game. We come up short and finish second.

“It’s a frustrating night, man. There’s nothing we could’ve done different.”

Another Cup driver took a different view of Busch’s tirade.

Martin Truex Jr. takes Cup points lead after Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

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CONCORD, N.C. — Martin Truex Jr. took over the Cup points lead with a third-place finish in Saturday’s Coca-Cola 600.

The Furniture Row Racing driver, who led a race-high 233 laps, also extended his lead in the playoff standings by winning the second stage and bringing his total to 16 points.

Kyle Larson, who had led the standings for eight consecutive races since Phoenix International Raceway, fell to second in the rankings after crashing and finishing a season-worst 33rd. Larson trails Truex by five points in the race for the regular-season championship (and 15 playoff points).

Click here for the points standings after Charlotte.

Results, stats for the 58th annual Coca-Cola 600

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With a fuel gamble, Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 for his first NASCAR Cup win.

It comes in his 133rd start and is the second win for Richard Childress Racing this year.

Following him was Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.

Click here for the full results.

Austin Dillon returns No. 3 to victory lane for first time since Dale Earnhardt’s last win

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CONCORD, N.C. – Austin Dillon scored his first Cup victory in his first start with a new crew chief, bringing an iconic number back to victory lane in NASCAR’s premier series.

Stretching his last tank of fuel 70 laps, the Richard Childress Racing driver won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I can’t believe it,” Dillon told Fox Sports. “I was just really focused on those last laps.”

It was the first victory on the circuit for the No. 3 Chevrolet since the late Dale Earnhardt’s win at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2000. Richard Childress Racing mothballed the number after Earnhardt’s death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 but brought it back with Dillon in 2014.

Dillon, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress, was making his debut with crew chief Justin Alexander, who replaced Slugger Labbe last week.

Kyle Busch finished second, followed by Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin.

Jimmie Johnson was leading before running out of fuel with three laps remaining, handing the lead to Dillon.

“I was just trying to be patient with (Johnson),” Dillon said. “I could see him saving (fuel). I thought I’d saved enough early where I could attack at the end, but I tried to wait as long as possible. And when he ran out, I figured I’d go back in and save where I was lifting, and it worked out.

“I ran out at the line and it gurgled all around just to do one little spin and push it back to victory lane.”

With the victory, Dillon qualified for the playoffs, joining RCR teammate Ryan Newman (who clinched a berth by winning at Phoenix International Raceway).

Dillon becomes the 10th driver to score his first Cup win at Charlotte, joining David Pearson, Buddy Baker, Charlie Glotzbach, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Casey Mears and David Reutimann.

Who had a good race: Kyle Busch charged to second in the closing laps, following up a win last week at the All-Star Race. … Truex dominated Charlotte for the third straight year, leading a race-high 233 laps. … Joe Gibbs Racing placed three drivers in the top five, and rookie Daniel Suarez was 11th. … Rookie Erik Jones finished seventh, giving Furniture Row Racing two top 10s in a race for the first time.

Who had a bad race: It was over for Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski on Lap 20 when they were collected in a bizarre wreck as a result of a chain reaction from Jeffrey Earnhardt’s engine failure. …  Points leader Kyle Larson finished a season-worst 32nd after a crash. … Danica Patrick hit the wall twice (at least once because of a tire problem) and placed 25th.

Quote of the race: “My fiancée wrote in the car, ‘When you keep God in the first place, he will take you places you never imagined.’ And, I never imagined to be here.” – Dillon after scoring his first Cup victory.

What’s next: 1 p.m., June 4 at Dover International Speedway on FS1.