Dale Earnhardt Jr. scores best finish in 10 months, ponders the speed of Team Penske

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team found speed in the No. 88 Chevrolet during Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

But after Earnhardt (fifth) scored his first top five in 10 months, he couldn’t help but wonder how to find the little extra that his rivals seemed to have – particularly the Team Penske Fords.

“I mean, I felt like we were pretty good and we ran with the cars that have been really fast,” Earnhardt said. “I think (Brad Keselowski) and (Joey Logano) have been really the class of the field.

“I saw those guys weaving after the race and downshifting hard to reset their housing, so we have to figure out what they are doing and see if we can’t make it better.”

Earnhardt still was in the game after starting 37th because he didn’t take a qualifying lap on the repaved 1.5-mile oval.

He was outside the top 10 after the first stage but was ninth after the second stage and took advantage of a well-timed pit stop with five laps remaining before the closing segment of the race.

The 14-time most popular driver also battled a malfunctioning cooling system that wasn’t directing enough air into his helmet (winning teammate Jimmie Johnson battled the same problem and needed fluids after the race).

Earnhardt said he ran the 500-mile race with his visor up to help with circulation, blaming the lack of air conditioning partly on a windy day at Texas.

“I think it makes it hard to get into the inlet that lets air in the helmet,” Earnhardt said on a postrace Periscope. “It was like a vacuum. I saw Jimmie in victory lane, and he about passed out when he got out of the car. It was super, super hot.”

Earnhardt said Hendrick would evaluate the cooling systems on the Nos. 48 and 88 Chevrolets.

“We have all our stuff routed the same,” he said. “Maybe we need to look at what we’re doing and improve the interior.

“I’m not going to complain too much because Adam (Jordan), my interior guy, one of the greatest guys on earth, is getting married on Easter weekend. One of my very good friends, I’ll talk to him about how to fix the interior or work on the air conditioning when he gets back from his honeymoon.”

Earnhardt scored his best finish since a second on June 6, 2016 at Pocono Raceway. A week later at Michigan International Speedway, he was involved in the crash that caused the concussion-like symptoms that forced him out of the car for the final 18 races of the 2016 season.

“Good run, finally got a great finish,” Earnhardt said on Periscope. “We should have finished better. Maybe even won the race. Our car was good enough for that. I don’t know. I didn’t do everything just right on restarts and stuff. I think we had a fast enough car for sure.

“Always fun to have a good run when you have an off-weekend coming up. I like finishing good before an off-weekend so we can have fun and not think about racing a bit.”

Saturday’s NASCAR Cup, Xfinity schedule at Richmond

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Today is the midpoint of the racing weekend at Richmond International Raceway.

The NASCAR Cup Series will have two practice sessions, while the NASCAR Xfinity Series will have qualifying and then race in the Toyota Care 250.

Here’s how today’s schedule shapes up (all times are Eastern):

6:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

7:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Cup garage open

9 – 9:55 a.m. – Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

10:05 a.m. – Xfinity qualifying; three rounds/multi-car (FS1)

11:15 a.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

11:30 a.m. – 12:20 p.m. – Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

12:30 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

1 p.m. – Toyota Care 250; 250 laps/187.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Starting grid for Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond

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The Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway will begin Sunday with Matt Kenseth and Ryan Blaney on the front row.

They will lead a 38-car field to green in the ninth race of the Cup season.

Filling out the top five is Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

Click here for the full starting grid.

Denny Hamlin: Joe Gibbs Racing’s rebound won’t happen ‘overnight’ or ‘in a month’

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With NASCAR visiting a track where Joe Gibbs Racing has won the last three races, one of its drivers admits the issues that have plagued the team so far in 2017 won’t be remedied quickly.

“I think we are slowly getting better, we’re gaining more knowledge trying to figure out what it is that we need to work on,” Denny Hamlin said Friday at Richmond International Raceway. “It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen this week, it won’t happen in a month. Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better.”

Entering the Toyota Owners 400, Joe Gibbs Racing has yet to win race through eight events. All four of its drivers sit outside the top 10 in points. Hamlin was the last active JGR driver to win, winning last years’ regular season finale at Richmond.

The 2016 Daytona 500 winner is 15th in the standings and has yet to finish in the top five. By this point in each of the last two seasons, Hamlin had three top fives and one win.

“It’s always taken me a long time to get over winter break,” Hamlin said. “For whatever reason, it’s taking 10 races or whatever into the season to kind of hit my stride. I’m not really sure what it is. I try just as hard at the beginning as I do at the end. It just seems like that break in the offseason, it takes myself a little while to get over that hump, get in the flow of things. I’m not really sure.”

JGR is still learning about its new 2018 Camry bodies, which Toyota introduced this year. Furniture Row Racing, which is in a technical alliance with JGR, has one win with Martin Truex Jr. (Las Vegas), who is also third in points. Erik Jones is 13th in the standings with just one top 10.

Truex and Jones claimed the top spots in Friday’s only Cup practice session.

“We all get the same information,” Truex said Friday. “I guess at the end of the day it’s how you use it, how you put it to use. I think our team, (crew chief) Cole (Pearn), (engineer) Jazzy (Jeff Curtis), (competition director) Pete (Rondeau), our guys in general are just – right now we’re just clicking. We have a lot of confidence. Things are going well.”

Through eight races, there have been six different winners. NASCAR America analyst Steve Letarte has called this Sunday’s race “pivotal” for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I think our competition also did a phenomenal job over the off‑season of getting better,” Hamlin said. “They just showed up this year with just more raw speed than what they had at the end of last year. It’s the same drivers, same crew chiefs, but their cars are faster. That makes their job a whole lot easier. But these are the trying times, you could say, that defines your character. It makes you work hard. We were on top for probably a year and a half, every week having four out of five of the fastest cars each week. Sometimes we won, sometimes we didn’t. But we’re going to get better. We’re not on top right now, so we’ve got to work extra hard to get there.”

One piece of the JGR puzzle who has had to work harder is Daniel Suarez.

The defending Xfinity Series champion enters the ninth race of his rookie season 22nd in points. The biggest road block for him has been working with two crew chiefs. His initial partner, Dave Rogers, took an indefinite leave of absence following the West Coast Swing. Since then, the No. 19 team has been led by Scott Graves, who was Suarez’ crew chief last year during his title campaign.

“It’s been a lot going on for sure,” Suarez said Friday. “I felt like we were going in a good direction maybe a month and a half ago and then we had some changes that were out of our hands and I feel like we had to start again on these processes in the Cup car. Scott, he’s a very smart crew chief, he knows a lot and he has won two championships in a row in the Xfinity Series, but in the Cup car it’s different and he knows that and I’m learning that. I believe now we are learning together instead of I’m just learning myself.”

All of these comments were made Friday morning and afternoon. In the evening, Matt Kenseth did his part to turn things around for JGR by winning the pole for Sunday’s race.

It’s the first pole for JGR since the Kenseth claimed it last fall at Kansas Speedway.

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Matt Kenseth wins first pole of year for Toyota Owners 400

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For one afternoon at least, Matt Kenseth changed the conversation about Joe Gibbs Racing’s early season problems by winning the pole for the Toyota Owners 400.

Kenseth won his first pole of 2017 with a speed of 121.076 mph around Richmond International Raceway. It’s also the first pole for Toyota this season.

It’s Kenseth’s 19th Cup pole and his second at the .75-mile track (spring 2013). Kenseth’s previous best start this season was fourth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“Those guys did really a job adjusting between rounds,” Kenseth told Fox Sports 1. “We had enough speed in out Circle K Camry that we only had to do one lap in each of the first two rounds to get into the third round. … This year has not been a good year for us, obviously so far. … We haven’t been getting any stage points, we’re buried in the points back there. We finally got a decent finish last week (at Bristol).

“Hopefully this week we can start up front, stay up front and collect some stage points.”

Kenseth will try to extend JGR’s win streak at Richmond to four races.

Ryan Blaney qualified second with a speed of 120.854 mph.

“The last lap of the last section we moved up (the track),” Blaney told FS1. “I wish I had done it both laps of the last session. so I knew how hard to go. I was in there little bit shallow the second lap and I knew I regretted it right away … I guess a bunch other cars did that and they picked up. I don’t know where (Kenseth) ran. It was a solid effort.”

It will be Blaney’s third start from second this season, which is a fact that annoys the sophomore driver in the No. 21 Ford.

“I really want to race the Clash at Daytona, that’s like my biggest thing right now,” Blaney said. “It’s upsetting me that we can’t get a pole.”

Filling out the top five for Sunday’s race is Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

In his first race since announce his retirement following this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 12th.

Other notable starting spots: Chase Elliott (14th) Brad Keselowski (15th), Denny Hamlin (16th) Jimmie Johnson (17th) and Kyle Larson (18th).

Austin Dillon will start last as a penalty for failing pre-race laser inspection five times last week at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Click here for full qualifying results.