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Breaking up the Gibbs’ boys in Clash result of ‘perfect storm’

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Those who tuned in late to Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash may have been confused.

For awhile, it looked like a replay of last year’s Daytona 500, as Joe Gibbs Racing’s four Toyota’s paraded around Daytona International Speedway with a field of cars stacked up behind them.

Denny Hamlin once again set the benchmark, leading 48 laps (95 in last year’s Daytona 500) while his teammates Daniel Suarez, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch were snug tight behind him.

“The Gibbs team is really the only team that, to me, is always together at speedway events,” Jamie McMurray said Wednesday at Daytona 500 media day. “You look up and they’re always lined up. That doesn’t have as much to do with the team as it does with the drivers all working well together. You don’t see any other organization do that. So, that’s an advantage for them at plate tracks.”

While the JGR fortress was nearly impenetrable in last year’s Daytona 500 – JGR related teams led 156 of 200 laps – the opposition put up a successful fight in Sunday’s exhibition race.

In the closing laps, the two Team Penske cars of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano chiseled away at the four cars, side drafting each JGR entry until Hamlin was left to fend for himself with one lap to go. That resulted in Hamlin’s late block and contact with Keselowski in Turn 2, which allowed Logano to slip by and win.

Both JGR drivers and their competitors say that the team’s restrictor-plate strategy is harder than it looks.

“Game plans don’t necessarily all work out,” Kenseth said. “You’ve got to have strong cars to do it. The car has to end up there, not be separated by bad pit stops or strategy, what have you. It’s hard to say. … I thought we had it lined up really good in the Clash. We had all four of us in a row for a while. We just weren’t quite fast enough.”

Logano said it was the result of the “perfect storm” while Hamlin described it as his team being “almost selfless to a fault.”

“It took us the whole race to figure out how to do it and we almost ran out of time,” Logano said. “No, it wasn’t easy. The side draft is huge like it’s always been. Brad is probably the best at doing that leapfrog or what he calls the island hop, whatever you want to call it, and we were able to pull them apart and get in a hole and pull another one apart and get in the hole.”

Busch was the only other JGR car to lead Sunday (four laps) while Hamlin led all but four in the final 50-lap segment. The other four laps were led by Logano, who has won four restrictor-plate events dating back to his 2015 Daytona 500 event. Keselowski has chipped in another three for Team Penske since the fall 2014 Talladega race.

“The game has changed a lot and to be honest, I think the Gibbs cars have changed the game more than anything,” Logano said. “Like I said on Sunday, how selfless they are. They’re able to say, ‘Hey, you’re the guy in the lead and all four of us are gonna line up and we’re not gonna throw blocks, we’re not gonna try to pass you, we’re gonna stay in a straight line’ and it makes them really hard to pass. The only way you pass them is you’ve got to have a team that’s stronger that’s able to pick them apart one at a time and that’s what we were able to do.”

While the combined effort of Keselowski and Logano won the race after leading only 22 laps, Kenseth admits JGR’s four cars had nothing for the Penske cars.

“The 2 and 22 were fast,” Kenseth said. “They could pull the back car off the line all the time. The three of us couldn’t really get away. If it was going to work, I think it would have worked in the Clash better because the group is so much smaller.”

Only 17 cars were in the 75-lap race compared to 40 that will be in the Daytona 500. The lineup for Sunday’s race won’t be settled until Thursday night’s Can-Am Duel. Only then can teams begin making plans to try to duplicate what JGR accomplished last year or a way to break such a monopoly up.

“I think if it happens again, we have an alternate plan,” Hamlin said. “The same ideas are not going to continue to work over and over. You have to come up with something new, something to keep them off guard. Not just Penske, but there are going to be many other contenders in the mix of it that are not just going to allow us to go out there and lead all the laps. We’ve got to be ready for it.”

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Starting grid for the NASCAR Cup Series’ Auto Club 400

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With the second pole of his NASCAR Cup Series career, Kyle Larson will lead the field to green Sunday in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

Joining Larson the front row is Denny Hamlin.

Filling out the top five is Brad Keselowski, Martin Treux Jr. and Ryan Newman.

Click here for the starting grid.

Kyle Larson wins pole for Auto Club 400, second Cup pole of career

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Kyle Larson ended a three-year drought by winning the pole for the NASCAR Cup Series’ Auto Club 400.

Larson won his second Cup Series pole with a speed of 187.047 mph around Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. His first pole came in the August 2013 race at Pocono Raceway.

The pole continues Larson’s impressive start to 2017. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver leads the point standings after earning three consecutive second-place finishes.

“I felt like messed up there in Turn 1 and 2 and I got a little bit loose off the wall on the entry and it got me to split the seam in (Turn) 1 and 2,” Larson told Fox Sports. “I was able to commit to (being) wide open off (Turn) 1 and 2. I hadn’t ran up high in (Turn) 3 and 4 at all in practice or qualifying here. Didn’t really know what I would have out there but ran a good ways and it stuck. … Our Target team has been really amazing to start the season and to get a pole is great. … Got a little team dinner tonight, so this will be a good thing to celebrate.”

Larson’s run knocked Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin from the top spot. As Larson drove down pit road, a Fox Sports camera caught Hamlin playfully showing his dissatisfaction by emptying a cup of ice in the direction of the No. 42.

“This is No. 1 on my list of track I want to win,” Hamlin told Fox Sports. “It’s bitten me mentally and physically … definitely one I want to check off.”

Filling out the top five is Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr and Ryan Newman.

Daniel Suarez qualified 10th for his best career Cup start.

No Hendrick Motorsports entries will start in the top 10. Kasey Kahne was the top qualifier in 12th, followed by Chase Elliott.

Five cars did not make qualifying attempts, with one of them being by choice. Jimmie Johnson’s team elected not to make an attempt following his accident in practice. He will start 37th.

Joining Johnson at the back of the field will be Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Matt DiBenedetto and Gray Gaulding. All of their cars did not make it through inspection in time to qualifying.

Click here for qualifying results.

Jimmie Johnson’s team elects not to make qualifying run after accident in practice

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Following Jimmie Johnson’s accident in practice early Friday, Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team chose not to qualify with a backup car at Auto Club Speedway.

Johnson, a six-time winner at Auto Club Speedway, will start 37th in Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

Four other cars, including those of Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne, will start in the back after they did not make qualifying attempts. Their cars failed to get through inspection in time. Rookie Gray Gaulding and Matt DiBenedetto also did not qualify because their cars failed to get through inspection.

Johnson explained his team’s decision.

“We had a tough practice session and mid-pack was probably going to be our goal anyway,” he said. “So, to take our lumps here, at a track that’s really wide with a lot of lanes, a long race; we’ll just take our lumps and get the car right where we can take advantage of the precious minutes that we have in Saturday’s practice session and go from there. Pit road is going to be a problem. We’re not going to have a great pick there. We’re definitely not in a position we want to be in, so we’d rather take the time now and make sure we get everything right and get this car right; and also kind of control our risk factor.”

With ACS being such a wide race track with plenty of passing opportunities, Johnson is not in as bad a position to start Sunday’s race as he would be at more narrow track.

Crew chief Chad Knaus told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Claire B. Lang he wasn’t comfortable forcing Johnson to “hustle” to qualify a car he hadn’t practiced in.

Joey Logano completes sweep of Xfinity practices at Auto Club Speedway

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Joey Logano was fastest in the final Xfinity Series practice session at Auto Club Speedway for the Service King 300.

Driving Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford, Logano put up a speed of 176.804 mph on his 19th of 35 laps in the session

The top five as made up of Erik Jones (176.744), Paul Menard (176.587), Brandon Jones (176.475) and Kyle Larson (176.039).

William Byron and Brennan Poole recorded the most laps in the session with 37 each.

Logan also had the best 10-lap average at 174.889 mph.

Click here for the full practice report.