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Kyle Busch isn’t fretting how Joe Gibbs Racing has started season

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BRISTOL, Tennessee — Joe Gibbs Racing hasn’t gone this late into a season without a victory since 2007, has more drivers outside the top 20 in points (Matt Kenseth and Daniel Suarez) than in the top 10 (Kyle Busch), and didn’t have a driver finish in the top 10 the last week.

Contrast that with how the organization won 26 of 72 Cup races the previous two seasons and it’s easy to question what’s wrong with Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

While Kyle Busch admits the organization has not had the start of past years, he does have a message for those raising doubts about JGR.

“I feel as though as we’re competitive and we’re close,’’ he said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “There’s just some things that we see other teams doing that we haven’t necessarily ventured off to yet.

“We’re working on all those things. It certainly didn’t bode well for us last year to be as strong as we were in the beginning part of the season and the middle part of the season. We didn’t win a championship because of how strong we were early on. You look at (Jimmie Johnson) and those guys at Hendrick, they weren’t very strong at the start of the season and they picked up and won the championship.

“I don’t think there’s any reason for cause to be concerned yet. Ask me that question again in about 10 weeks.’’

Busch ranked second in Friday’s lone Cup practice session. Kenseth was fifth and Denny Hamlin was sixth.

Johnson won two of the first five races last season but then went 25 races without a victory before snapping it at Charlotte in the second round of the playoffs. He won three of the final seven races on the way to winning his seven series title.

Car owner Joe Gibbs said earlier this week that the organization is working to score only its second Cup victory since mid-September.

“Last year, we had one of our best years, were up front, very successful,’’ said Gibbs, whose team won seven of the first 12 races a year ago. “This year shows you how hard things are. Some people have improved. The hardest thing is to stay up there. It’s a short trip back down. We’ve isolated five different things we need to work on and improve on. Five things just overall with our program.’’

He did not name those areas.

Kenseth said earlier this week that this season has been a struggle. He enters this weekend 22nd in points.

“Martinsville has been one of our strongest tracks on performance since I’ve come to JGR,’’ Kenseth said. “We ran really, really bad the last time there. We didn’t finish bad, but we ran bad.

“We ran bad at tracks we historically run good at, which for me is a concern. If we run good this weekend and are competitive and part of the lead group, no matter where you finish, you feel you’re part of that lead group and can run with guys who have been running good all year, you’ll feel better about being on the right track and feel good about fixing problems and getting ahead of the curve.’’

Until then, questions will persist.

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Wood Brothers secure charter for 2018 season

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The Wood Brothers have formed a partnership with Go Fas Racing that will allow the No. 21 team to have a charter, guaranteeing Paul Menard a starting spot in every Cup race this season.

Last year, the Wood Brothers leased a charter from Go Fas Racing.

“This charter is a game-changing step for Wood Brothers Racing. It’s the critical piece needed to thrive as a top owner in our sport,” said Len Wood, co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing, in a statement from the team.

“We have been fortunate enough to have extremely fast cars and are blessed with the best sponsors in NASCAR. Pair that with our support from Ford and nearly every piece is in place. Last year we leased a charter from Archie [St. Hilaire]. We’ve really come to appreciate working with him and his son Mason, and I think everyone has benefited tremendously from this relationship. For 2018 and beyond, we’ve taken it a step further and entered into a partnership and we think it will be a rewarding endeavor for everyone involved.”

The Wood Brothers scored their 99th career Cup win with Ryan Blaney last year and earned their first playoff spot.

Go Fas Racing stated on Twitter it would have a charter for Matt DiBenedetto but didn’t reveal details.

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Danica Patrick confirms she is dating NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers

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Danica Patrick said Monday that she and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers are dating. Patrick confirmed the news to The Associated Press.

Patrick, who is from Illinois, is a Chicago Bears fan but will change allegiances.

She told the AP that she and Rodgers met at the 2012 ESPY Awards.

“I told him a long time ago I’d always root for him as a player,” Patrick told the AP. “Now I am probably going to cheer for the whole team. Take out the word ‘probably.’ Now I’m going to cheer for the whole team.”

Patrick ended a five-year relationship with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in November. Rodgers split from actress Olivia Munn in 2017 after three years of dating.

Patrick plans to retire from racing this season after competing in the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. She has not announced a deal for either ride. An executive with Chip Ganassi Racing recently told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that they were no longer talking to Patrick about a ride in either race.

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Darrell Wallace Jr. feels a connection to Wendell Scott without the pressure of his legacy

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WELCOME, N.C. – There will be many reminders of the history that Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. could make this season in NASCAR’s premier series, but this one was especially personal.

The first full-time African-American driver on the circuit in 47 years since Wendell Scott received a 2-minute voice mail recently from Scott’s son, Wendell Jr.

“(It said) don’t feel like I need to carry the pressure of his dad and the Scott legacy, just go out there and do me,” Wallace said, relaying the message last Friday during a break from a preseason production shoot. “That’s the way it’s always been. All the history falls in place after. That’s how I like to go about it. A small part carries him with me, but I don’t put that in the forefront.

“For me, it’s just to go out and get through practice, qualifying and the race. If we end up with a top five, then, hey, it’s the first African-American to do this or the first African-American to do that. I don’t really look at that stuff. That’s when the media kind of brings that in. You can sit back after the race and say, ‘Damn, that was pretty cool.’ ”

Wallace is accustomed to being in the headlines for unique accomplishments. His Oct. 26, 2013 win in the Camping World Truck Series at Martinsville Speedway was the first by a black driver in one of NASCAR’s national series since Scott’s Dec. 1, 1963 win at Jacksonville, Florida.

Wallace, 24, has notched five more truck victories since then (including his lone start on the circuit last August at Michigan International Speedway) and made the Xfinity Series playoffs in 2016.

But as he steps into the famous No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports (which has moved this year to Chevrolet and a new shop location adjacent to Richard Childress Racing, which will supply its cars and engines), Wallace acknowledges that “for sure, I’m carrying that banner” again for Scott. He got to know the racing pioneer’s family eight years ago after entering NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program.

He understands the attention brought by his race, though he also sees evidence on social media that his fan base tires of hearing about it.

“It’s something I’ve embraced,” Wallace said. “I’ve accepted that it’s always going to be talked about no matter what I do. I’ll be the first African-American to take a piss in the Cup garage. Everything I do is a first. It’s going to be there. I’ve accepted it.

“The fans are (who) get so fired up over it. It’s like, ‘Why do we have to mention it?’ Because no one is there. It’s going to be mentioned. It has to be mentioned. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the show.”

Wallace made his Cup debut with RPM last season at Pocono Raceway, the first of four starts in place of injured Aric Almirola. He posted a respectable average finish of 17.8 while handling the increased exposure with aplomb.

Team owner Richard Petty said “there’s going to be a lot of pressure on (Wallace)” in 2018, but he thinks his crew won’t feel the effects.

“I don’t think it’s going to put that much pressure on RPM because they’re going to do the best they can for whoever it is,” Petty said. “It’s going to put a lot of pressure on him, so he’s going to have to learn to live with it.”

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer said Wallace already proved last year he is highly adaptable despite the heavy scrutiny.

“When we showed up at Pocono, we realized what it was all about,” Blickensderfer said. “It kind of gave you goosebumps to think about how special it was. We saw all the hoopla and everything that was going on around it, we thought, ‘This is something that’s a little different than just the kid who’s going to drive a race car.’ ”

It doesn’t feel so different away from the track, though, when Wallace brings his freewheeling presence through the shop.

“When he walks in be-bopping and giving people knuckles, it’s nothing,” Blickensderfer said. “It’s just a kid driving a race car. But I think when we get to Daytona and unload the car that has ‘Wallace’ on it and it’s his car, I think it’s going to be a little different. But it’s different in a great way.

“Everybody on this team looks at it like it’s cool. The way Bubba reacts to it, he just handles it. He does it remarkably well for a kid his age. He just kind of takes it in and is OK with it and goes about his business, much better than most people would. It makes it easier for us just to not even think about that weekly. When we get ready to fire engines for the Daytona 500, we’re going to be like, ‘He’s doing something really cool here.’ Until then it’s kind of business, and it’s just some kid driving a race car.

But as he prepares for his first full season in Cup, even Wallace finds himself occasionally caught in the moment – such as when he walked past one of his new Camaros – which was coated only in primer but had his last name across the windshield.

“I was thinking, ‘Damn that’s my Cup car,’” he said. “That’s cool. Nothing on it but ‘Wallace.’ I thought, ‘Damn, that’s really cool to see.’ It’s exciting stuff that’s happening right now. I’ll be anxious to see when we get to Daytona how giddy I’ll be.”

Justin Haley returning to GMS Racing for 2018

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Justin Haley will again drive the No. 24 Chevrolet Silverado this season for GMS Racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the team announced Monday. Sponsor Fraternal Order of Eagles also returns.

The 18-year-old won a pole at Texas and had three top-five finishes and 12 top-10 results in 21 starts last year.

“We found a lot of success toward the end of the 2017 season, so there’s a good amount of momentum that we can carry over into this year,” said Haley in a statement from the team. “The No. 24 team is working hard in the offseason to take us to that next level, to be able to keep running up front and improving week to week. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be competing for a championship when we get to Miami, and I couldn’t be more excited to be heading in that direction with GMS and the Fraternal Order of Eagles.”

Haley will again have Kevin Bellicourt as his crew chief.

“It’s been really encouraging to see the work that not only this team has done, but that Justin has put in over the offseason,” said Bellicourt in a statement from the team. “From working in the gym to time on the simulator, he’s focused on getting himself prepared to make a run for the title. The team has put everything we’ve got behind him and we’ve watched him do the same. It feels like all the pieces are coming together at the right time.”

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