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Big steps: Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones have best Cup career finishes

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Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones on Sunday took the biggest steps yet in their budding NASCAR Cup careers.

The Cup rookies and Toyota drivers both earned career-best finishes – both top-10 showings – in NASCAR’s premier series.

Suarez finished seventh, while Jones was right behind in eighth in the Camping World 500 at Phoenix Raceway.

It was Suarez’s fourth Cup race, all in 2017, while it was Jones’ seventh career Cup start (four in 2017, three in 2015).

“It’s a big deal because in the last two races we have struggled,” Suarez said. “We didn’t have the speed and the communication wasn’t great, but we’ve been working very hard trying to work on chemistry, communication and for sure we’ve been getting better.

“(Saturday) in the last practice, in the happy hour, I felt very good about the car. I feel like we were going to have a shot to have some fun in the race and I wasn’t wrong. The team did a very good job.”

Suarez’s finish was helped immensely by a lightning-fast pit stop to take two tires.

“The guys did an amazing job,” Suarez said. “They just did exactly what they had to do: a fast pit stop, two tires and the car was almost as good as four tires.”

Jones, meanwhile, had an inkling heading into Sunday’s race that a strong finish was potentially in the cards.

“We had it kind of coming here in the last couple of weeks,” Jones said. “We just had a few issues to iron out whether it be on pit road or on the race track. Just bad circumstances.

“Finally, everything kind of played out the way we needed it to. Didn’t quite work out at the end the way we were hoping. … We felt like we had a fifth place Camry but it just wasn’t in the cards. Good restart at the end, and we got back up to the top 10.”

Jones may have had a bit of an edge in Sunday’s race because he was among 13 teams that tested at Phoenix in early February.

“I think it helped a lot,” Jones said of the test. “It was able to at least give us a good baseline to start with.

“I think every time we start coming back to these tracks for the second time we’re just going to be that much better and that much stronger. It was a big deal. I hope we test somewhere else this year for sure.”

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Atlanta Motor Speedway to delay repave at least a year

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The cries of drivers have been heard. Atlanta Motor Speedway will not repave its track as previously scheduled. Instead, track officials will evaluate the surface following the 2018 race there.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns the track, had planned to have the track surface repaved beginning in late March. It would have been the first repave there since 1997.

Engineers examined the track after the March 5 race to determine if the track surface could last another year with modest repairs. Track officials also consulted with Goodyear and others.

“There’s no question that the surface is worn out, but probably the most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C., was the biggest influence,” Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports of the drivers. “They kind of put the pressure on. I understand.”

After winning there, Brad Keselowski made his pitch not to repave the track.

“Drivers hate repaves,” he said. “We want to see the surfaces last as long as they can.  But the reality is nothing lasts forever, and this surface has made it a really, really long time, 20 years, I think, this season, and they should be really proud of that.

“My hope is they can get another year or two out of it, and I understand if they can’t, and you have to kind of leave it to their expertise and so forth.”

Clark said that work will need to be done to the track before next year’s race.

“The worst part is down the frontstretch in front of the grandstands,” Clark told NBC Sports. “There’s a lot of issues there. We’re actually going to have to cut a few areas and patch … to make it last through 2018. We consulted with Goodyear on that. They don’t think, as long as it is on the straightaway, it is a big issue from a tire standpoint.”

Clark said that the track surface will be sealed in October and should have the patching done before then.

“Let them go ahead and slip and slide one more time in 2018,” Clark said.

Clark said that while anything can change, he doesn’t foresee being talked out of a repave job too many more times.

“You have to see how the weekend goes and what happens,” Clark told NBC Sports. “We had to patch some places after the Saturday events this year, small places. Hey, if we could go two more, great. All you’ve got to do is walk out there and look at it. It is absolutely worn out. But if the drivers say, hey our choice is to race on this surface as it is.

“There comes a point (when a repave is needed). We do have a few drainage issues we do need to correct, some other things when the time comes. Right now, we’re going to get through 2018 and evaluate and see if that is the time or when is it.”

Clark said that when the track is repaved, Goodyear has expressed interest in having two test sessions to determine the proper tire for that 1.5-mile track instead of the customary one because of the track’s challenging surface.

Clark warns that with the excitement of Tuesday’s news, the day is still coming when the track will have to be repaved.

“I can’t see this going two more seasons, maybe only one,” Clark said.

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NASCAR America — My Home Track: 50 States In 50 Shows — Arkansas

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On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we continued our series of My Home Track: 50 States in 50 Shows as our trucks rolled into Arkansas!

We visited two short tracks in the state that produced President Bill Clinton and Basketball Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen.

Plus we talked to NASCAR Hall of Famer and Arkansas native Mark Martin about racing in his home state.

NASCAR America: Is there cause for concern with Jimmie Johnson’s performance thus far?

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It’s no secret that Jimmie Johnson is off to a slow start in 2017.

The defending and seven-time NASCAR Cup champion has a starting average of 21.8 and a finishing average of 18.8 in the first five races of this season.

He has just one top-10 finish (ninth at Phoenix), along with 34th at Daytona, 19th at Atlanta, 11th at Las Vegas and 21st Sunday at Fontana.

And let’s not forget he’s 17th in the NASCAR Cup standings heading to one of his strongest tracks, Martinsville Speedway, this Sunday.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we discussed this: After such a slow start to the season, is there a cause for concern over Johnson’s performance?

NASCAR America: Mark Martin is definitely a Kyle Larson fan

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On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin shared his experience of racing in his home state of Arkansas, as well as the excitement he feels watching  Kyle Larson compete in the Cup series.