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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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Danica Patrick has a Daytona 500 team: Premium Motorsports

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The first piece of the “Danica Double” has been fully confirmed.

According to the Associated Press, Danica Patrick will drive the No. 7 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports in next month’s Daytona 500. The AP reported that the car will be locked into the field through a charter and will receive engineering support from Richard Childress Racing.

Patrick entered NASCAR driving the No. 7 for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series from 2010-12. For the Feb. 18 race, she also will be reunited with crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who helped guide Patrick to her career-best NASCAR finish of fourth in a 2011 Xfinity race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The car will be sponsored by GoDaddy, which announced last week that it would sponsor Patrick in both this year’s Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. Patrick has yet to reveal which team she will drive for in the Indy 500, which will conclude her racing career.

She already has made history in both events.

As a rookie in 2005, she became the first woman to lead the Indy 500 before taking fourth (and became the highest-finishing female in the race’s history with a third in 2009).

In the 2013 Daytona 500, she became the first woman to win the pole position and lead a race in NASCAR’s premier series.

New details of road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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CONCORD, North Carolina — The Sept. 30 Cup race on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course will be on a slightly altered 2.28-mile circuit.

The race, which airs on NBC, will serve as the conclusion of the first round of the playoffs. It is the first road course race in the 14-year history of the playoffs.

The alterations shorten the original 2.4-mile, 13-turn layout of the circuit. The track is now 2.28 miles and 17 turns after the removal of two of the last three infield turns. There will be more than 35 feet of elevation changes between Roval Turn 4 – the lowest point in the track – and Roval Turn 9, the highest point.

A chicane has also been added to the backstretch right before the entrance of Turn 3 of the oval. The track is adding 440 temporary rumble strips.

The distance for the race will be announced at a later date.

NASCAR held a test on the road course last October with Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Hemric and Jamie McMurray. Busch suggested the elimination of those turns in order to “speed up the track.”

“There are a lot of slow sections with Turns 5, 6 and 7,” Busch said. “Those are good rhythmic corners. … (But) a 3,500-pound car going 35 mph too many times isn’t too exciting.”

Truex was part of Monday’s presentation and gave his thoughts on the change.

“The lap times were so long that we were going to be looking at a race that was, I don’t even know how many hours,” Truex said. “Way too long. Basically taking out those two turns cut out quite a bit of lap time off the laps. It’s more so like a regular road course like Watkins Glen … we’ll be in kind of that realm.”

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said that the race could be held at night if pushed back for various reasons. The race is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. ET.

“We’re working with the track who we believe will have something in place,” O’Donnell said. “Goodyear will be ready with rain tires if we had to make some adjustments.’’

There will be a Goodyear tire test in March and an open test for Cup teams in July.

O’Donnell said NASCAR is “comfortable” with the current layout of the course and that no changes are expected to be made following the tests.

NASCAR on NBC analysts Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton took a few laps around the new layout and shared their thoughts on Facebook Live.

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ThorSport Racing partners with Ford in Truck Series

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ThorSport Racing has partnered with Ford in a multi-year deal in the Camping World Truck Series, the team announced Monday.

The team’s announcement comes a week after it revealed the mutual decision to part ways with Toyota.

“With 23 years in the NCWTS, we look forward to our new partnership with Ford Performance in NASCAR,” team owner Duke Thorson said in a press release. “Our pursuit of wins and championships remains at the forefront of our objectives.”

ThorSport, based in Sandusky, Ohio, had been paired with the Toyota for six years, winning two titles with Matt Crafton.

“We’re excited that ThorSport Racing has decided to switch to a F-Series truck for the 2018 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports in a press release. “ThorSport is a proven championship-level team in the series, and we look forward to providing them the aero and simulation technical support that will ensure they remain at the top level of the Truck Series.”

In 2017, Brad Keselowski Racing fielded the only two full-time Ford entries in the series. That team shut down following the end of the season.

Crafton will be returning to ThorSport for his 17th season – and 14th consecutive – with the team. The rest of the team’s driver lineup will be announced at a later date.

The Truck Series season begins Feb. 16th at Daytona International Speedway.

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D.J. Kennington to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500 with Gaunt Brothers Racing

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Canadian driver D.J. Kennington will try to qualify for the Daytona 500 with Gaunt Brothers Racing for the second year in a row, the team announced Monday.

Kennington, a native of St. Thomas, Ontario, will drive the No. 96 Toyota sponsored by Lordco Auto Parts and Castrol.

The team, sponsor and driver combination made the 2017 edition of the race, making Kennington the first Canadian driver to compete in the Daytona 500 in 29 years.

Kennington started 28th and finished 36th following a multi-car crash at the start of Stage 2.

“Last year was an awesome experience for my sponsors, Lordco and Castrol, and me,” Kennington said in a press release. “We knew once it was over, we wanted to do it again. (Team owner) Marty (Gaunt) and everybody at GBR is pulling out all the stops for us this year. I’m looking forward to getting back behind the wheel of the Lordco/Castrol Toyota Camry and seeing the difference a year makes.”

The 40-year-old driver has five Cup starts with a best finish of 26th in last November’s race at Phoenix.

Gaunt Brothers Racing does not own a charter, meaning Kennington is not guaranteed a starting spot in the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.

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