Kyle Busch earns Brickyard 400 pole position for second year in a row

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With a speed of 187.301 mph, Kyle Busch won the pole for the Brickyard 400 and helped out his chances of earning his first Cup win in one year.

His second pole in a row at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it is also Busch’s fourth of the season, a career-best mark for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. He has earned three poles twice (2013, 2014).

Busch will be seeking his third win in a row in the Brickyard 400. Last years’ race was the last time Busch won a Cup race.

The top five is completed by Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

“Just fortunate enough to be in a fast race car here at Indy,” Busch told NBCSN. “We’ve been really good here, we just need to put it all together. Today we did that. The guys made some really good adjustments for me in the garage area for practice today. I didn’t fee like we were the best. We didn’t even make any mock (qualifying) runs today, the day was so short. That goes to show how good theses guys are.”

McMurray qualified in the top five for this sixth time this year and his third race in a row.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 13th in his final Brickyard 400.

Matt Kenseth follows in 14th, then Daniel Suarez and Chase Elliott.

Click here for full qualifying results.

Daytona 500 victory was 50 years in the making for Austin Dillon’s tire changer

Photo: Dustin Long
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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The younger members of Austin Dillon’s team, full of adrenaline-fueled energy and excitement, celebrated their Daytona 500 victory Sunday with a late-night visit to a tattoo parlor to permanently etch their achievement on their rear end.

Terry Spalding didn’t make it that far. It was time to turn in.

That’s OK, Sunday was a big enough day for the 50-year-old front tire changer, who experienced his first Daytona 500 win.

Yes, Spalding is 50 years old and changes tires for a Cup playoff team. Age alone gives him a different perspective on the Daytona 500 victory.

“I’m really able to appreciate it,’’ Spalding told NBC Sports. “I’ve been doing it 20-some years. Only since I’ve been at RCR in the last seven or eight years have I really been able to win the races that I won.’’

Dillon says Spalding doesn’t need a Daytona 500 ring to note how special he is.

“Terry is just a champion in life, period,’’ Dillon said. 

Spalding grew up the son of a racer in Pennsylvania and moved to North Carolina to pursue a job in the sport in 1990 — the same year Dillon was born.

Along the way, Spalding has worked in Cup for car owners such as Travis Carter, Ray Evernham, Richard Petty, Michael Waltrip, Richard Childress. Spalding has gone over the wall to service cars for drivers such as Jimmy Spencer, Elliott Sadler, Tony Raines, David Reutimann, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard and Dillon.

Spalding went to in Victory Lane at Indianapolis in 2011 when Paul Menard won. Spalding was in Victory Lane last year when Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600.

That he is still going over the wall is a feat considering the radical changes for pit crew this season. With NASCAR eliminating one of the over-the-wall positions, pit crew members are having to redefine their roles. Those that haven’t adjusted as well have lost jobs or been dropped down a series. Spalding’s duties have changed. He now carries a 60-pound tire with along with his air gun.

He’s always managed to adjust through the years. When he turned 40, he often was asked how much longer would he wanted to change tires. He randomly said 50. It’s a nice round number. Realistically, as pit crews have become more athletic and younger — many are in their 20s — that seemed like a pipe dream.

Now that he’s 50, how much longer will he go?

“I feel as good as I did when I was 40,’’ Spalding said. “I thought about when I can’t go over the wall anymore, starting to coach.’’

He’s got to find time. He plays in the same basketball league Denny Hamlin hosts at his house that includes Dillon, Darrell Wallace Jr., Ryan Blaney and others. In recent years, Spalding competed in slalom ski races. He’s also played in a roller hockey league. He’s competed in mountain bike races.

“I still go in the weight room, I don’t hit it as hard as I used to,’’ Spalding said. “I like to do things … and stay active that way.’’

He’s not ready to quit any time soon.

“I want to go as long as I can,’’  he said. Barring some freak injury, I honestly think 55 is no problem.’’ 

That would be at least five more Daytona 500s.

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Ryan: Four drivers had a Daytona 500 win in reach. Here’s how it got away

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – There’s only one winner of the Great American Race, and technically up to 39 losers annually.

But the number of drivers who lose with legitimate shots at a Daytona 500 victory — but watch them get squandered, snatched away or simply vanish in the capricious draft — varies every season.

Sunday’s race seemed one of the longest list of “woulda coulda shouldas” in recent memory.

No fewer than four drivers in the final 10 laps made decisions while leading that they desperately would have wanted back.

A few flicks of the wheel in other directions, and the course of history instantaneously could have resulted in someone other than Austin Dillon hoisting the Harley J. Earl trophy.

This has been a theme lately in the Daytona 500. Sunday marked three straight last-lap passes for wins, and the 2016 finish might have been the cruelest of all for Matt Kenseth.

Nearly a year after his bid at third Daytona 500 victory vanished in the final corner with a split-second call to block an outside charge (if he stayed put, he probably wins),  Kenseth still wasn’t over the agony entering last season. “All I can remember is losing one,” he told NBC Sports a year ago.

How many times will this year’s class of the heartbroken say the same after rewinding the video and replaying the memories of the moves they didn’t make?

Here’s what could haunt them until at least their next shot at Daytona – and possibly long afterward.

Aric Almirola: In his first start at Stewart-Haas Racing, he seemed to be lamenting the finish the most among the contenders – and it wasn’t only because he had the lead until being moved by Dillon entering the third turn on the last lap. Almirola was “devastated” by the knowledge of what was left on the table – “a career changing race.”

It’s difficult to second-guess many of the maneuvers by the No. 10 Ford in crunch time: Almirola did well just to position himself for the win. But he probably would rerun the last lap, when he had Denny Hamlin behind him on the inside while Dillon was on the outside with a heavy push from Bubba Wallace.

The situation was similar to Kenseth’s – instinctually, it’s difficult for a driver to stay calm and in the inside lane when a competitor is coming with a full head of steam on the high lane.

But the trend Sunday was the outside was faster on the straightaways while the inside was quickest in the turns. If Almirola stays put, does Dillon’s momentum stall in the last two corners? The outcome probably is the same because he had little help, but that might have been what kept Almirola up Sunday night.

Denny Hamlin: With Hamlin in the lead on an overtime restart and only seven winning-caliber cars on the lead lap behind him, this certainly seemed the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s race to lose.

The 2016 Daytona 500 winner is regarded as one of the two or three best restrictor-plate drivers by his peers, and he certainly was the most adept and experienced contender left in the field.

But the lack of a Toyota drafting partner (JGR’s other three cars were long out of the running) ultimately took the decision out of Hamlin’s hands. He had to choose to restart ahead of Buescher or Dillon, both in Chevrolets, and after a debate on his team radio, he went with Buescher – but not because of the JTG Daugherty Racing driver.

Hamlin had his eye on Paul Menard’s Ford in fifth, which he felt was better than Bubba Wallace’s Chevy in sixth. “Obviously, I’ve been doing this long enough that I know that it’s made or break by the fifth‑ and sixth‑place drivers,” he said. “It’s not really who’s directly behind you, and I felt like (Menard) was probably going to be one of the best pushers. I saw how strong his car was.  So we tried to get on the radio and get (Buescher) behind us, (Menard) to try to buy in on whatever line gets organized the most is going to win the race. Those are the cars that’s going to battle it out for the victory.”

Buescher committed, but Menard didn’t, blunting the momentum of the inside and leaving Hamlin in the wake of Almirola, Wallace and Dillon. “So just a 50/50-coin flip and chose the wrong lane,” he said. “Honestly feel like there was nothing else I could have done (other than) just made a different decision there on lane choice.”

One other call Hamlin might be reconsidering? The decision to make the last green-flag pit a lap later than the lead pack (for a clean entry and exit, perhaps after Hamlin nearly lost two laps on a penalty for sliding through his box on the first stop). Hamlin dropped from third to eighth after a stop that he said was “almost too good” because he rejoined the track too far ahead and got gobbled up by the draft of the cars that pitted together. “They took us out of control of the race,” he said.

Ryan Blaney: He has been excellent at plate racing (leading a race-high 118 laps Sunday) in his short Cup career, but Sunday showed the Team Penske driver just lacks experience. His No. 12 Ford seemed in control with the lead and Kurt Busch’s Ford behind him on a restart with seven laps left, but Hamlin just snookered him from fifth on the inside lane.

Blaney made an impressive recovery to lead the next lap briefly over Busch but lost the lead again. When Busch made a mistake going low two laps later, Blaney took the lead again but dropped from first the next lap when Hamlin went by with Busch in tow. A third shot at redemption for Blaney was eliminated by a multicar crash triggered by a block from Busch.

The main takeaway for Blaney, who might had the strongest car in the second half, is learning how to be more strategic and less emphatic with his blocking.

Kurt Busch: He had a couple of shots at becoming the first winner of consecutive Daytona 500s in more than 20 years. But he landed in what he described as a “Bermuda Triangle” on the move in which he apparently delivered an inadvertent push that propelled Hamlin’s Toyota past Blaney’s Ford (Busch has been emphasizing his ties to the Blue Oval, which might present a landing spot in sports cars when his NASCAR career ends).

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver seemed to be second-guessing whether he should have used Dillon’s winning strategy – drill Hamlin and hope he could drive past him without crashing.

“It seemed like when Hamlin blocked us, I hit him pretty hard, and that killed a lot of my momentum,” he said. “Maybe I should have just flung the 11, but you have to treat guys with respect and you’ve also got to throw your elbows out, and you have to hold the hits when you get hit. We were close to going back-to-back in the Daytona 500, but I don’t have anything to show for it.”

Dillon’s victory came on the 17th anniversary of the last-lap Daytona 500 wreck that killed Dale Earnhardt, the most recent NASCAR fatality at Daytona International Speedway.

It’s easy to forget that Dillon also cheated death at the 2.5-mile oval in the airborne wreck in the July 5, 2015 race that ripped a 60-foot swath of the catchfence and left Dillon sitting helpless in a stationary, mangled shell of his No. 3 when it was hit at speed

Yes, despite his Lane Frost impression exiting the car with no injuries, the wreck stayed with him 30 months later and admittedly still makes him nervous.

“When it happened, I didn’t know how big it was, and then you see videos of it, and you’re like, ‘How did I like walk out of that like with nothing?’” he asked. “I get nervous coming here.  I think everybody does.  Especially like the first race in the Clash, I remember before the race, I was like, ‘Man, there’s something about this place that just makes you nervous.’

But once you get in the race car and you settle in, the belts are tight, you’re like, all right, it’s time to go racing.  It’s fun again.  This place is just cool because of that.  If it didn’t make you nervous, something would be wrong, I think.”

Close your eyes and ignore the Piedmont accent, and it would be easy to pretend you were hearing that being said in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott’s wicked head-on collision was cringeworthy to witness on such a fateful day in NASCAR history, but it was another reminder that Earnhardt’s greatest legacy remains that it sparked a safety revolution that is the longest period without a fatality in NASCAR national series history.

But it still is jarring to hear Joe Nemechek say after last Friday’s truck series race that “it’s pretty tough to get hurt in these cars anymore with all the safety innovations that have come through, soft walls, the carbon seats.”

Nemechek is a veteran who speaks from painful experience – his brother, John, died in a 1997 truck crash at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And he was giving a candid answer to what it’s like to watch his son, John Hunter (named for his late brother), involved in a caution.

But it still feels like whistling past the graveyard to imply that Earnhardt’s death might be NASCAR’s last. History shows it won’t be, and with blocking becoming part and parcel to plate racing, the brutal wrecks Sunday at Daytona probably will become more of the norm.

It’s possible for NASCAR to legislate blocking through wholesale rule changes, but it was striking that seemingly no one was lobbying for limits during and after 500 miles of incessant aggression.

Contrast that with Speedweeks in 2006 when Tony Stewart sternly warned someone would die if measures to restrict slam-drafting weren’t taken, or the 2002 Talladega race that prompted a virtual revolt among veterans.

Not anymore. A mix of acceptance and resignation about blocking as an accepted part of doing business colored the words of many drivers Sunday. It was particularly true in interviews with Almirola, who didn’t seem the slightest bit miffed about being punted by Dillon (conceding he would have done the same). Almirola’s boss, the guy nicknamed “Smoke” who once bragged of meting out retribution for any young turks daring to impede his progress, might have had a different opinion.

To hear more of his discussion, this was a topic on Monday’s post-Daytona episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, which is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play and elsewhere.

Wallace and Hamlin exchanged some barbs in postrace interviews, but they also had a heated exchange of words in the garage after Hamlin left the media center and Wallace was headed there.

It apparently was caught on camera by the crew that is following Wallace’s rookie season for a Facebook Watch documentary. That might be worth watching for over the final two episodes airing this week.

Though it was another tantalizing example of youth vs. establishment, it’s hard to see things lingering between Wallace, 24, and Hamlin, 37, who often play golf and basketball together.

Counting Dillon, the top three finishers at Daytona are members of Hamlin’s “Hoop Group”, where the trash talking might get a little fiercer.

While NASCAR still is waiting to hear if Monster Energy will pick up a two-year option of its title sponsorship beyond 2018, there was another sign the beverage company has made some headway on getting its requests met. The branding on the flag stand made Daytona International Speedway the latest track to more prominently display Monster logos (which were more visible at several tracks last fall).

Because its deal with NASCAR was signed so late before beginning last season, Monster still has been ironing out details with tracks on guarantees of exposure. It’s hard to predict which way its extension could go, but branding similar to Daytona only can help improve NASCAR’s chances.

The first true test will come this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but it’s rare that a NASCAR initiative such as the optical scanning system is as well received as the new inspection process was at Daytona.

If a full complement of cars is on the grid as early for qualifying and the race at Atlanta, NASCAR really might be on to something.

Also, credit to NASCAR for announcing penalties on team members during the course of last weekend rather than waiting until midweek. NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell explained in his weekly SiriusXM spot Monday that this is part of a laudable effort to get out of the game of announcing midweek penalties.

That hopefully goes for postrace inspection, too, eventually, though it’s unclear where NASCAR will land on that (and there were no inspection problems after the Cup and Xfinity races at Daytona).

The author of this column headline will concede it might have been taken the wrong way (though the text below it was intended as elucidation).

While the Duels are becoming antiquated creatures in the charter system, the concept of warmup races for the biggest race of the season is more important than ever. This is an opportunity to reimagine Speedweeks in a throwback way.

Teams will complain about putting too many cars at risk. Even some fans will protest having “too much” racing.

Ultimately, the complaints should be weighed against reality, which is that racing cars is the most surefire way to ensure a buildup of compelling storylines for the biggest race of the season. Even if they are just 20-lap dashes a la The Clash of yesteryear.

If NASCAR removes the “open” classification holding four slots for non-charter cars every week, that would free up some extra cash to post, too, for bonus events.

It’s understandable that Duels, which have been run in some form since the track’s 1959 opening, would be viewed as sacred cows. There also has been much discussion about giving NASCAR fans to much “change” to digest. This has been true when the “change” isn’t necessarily warranted but is intended more as a leap of faith toward something better.

That is not the case in this instance. Under the current economic, purse and team structure, the Duels (nee Twins) aren’t going to look the way they did in the halcyon days. It’s something that will need to be addressed by necessity.

Entry lists for NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series at Atlanta

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The 2018 season continues this weekend for all three of NASCAR’s national series at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The weekend includes a double-header for the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series on Saturday.

It all leads up to the Cup Series and the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 on Sunday.

Here’s the entry lists for each race.

Cup Series

There are 36 cars on the entry list for the Cup race.

Justin Marks is listed into the No. 51 Chevrolet for Rick Ware Racing but the team announced Feb. 15 that Harrison Rhodes would drive the car and make his Cup debut.

A driver is not listed on the No. 15 Chevrolet owned by Premium Motorsports.

Gray Gaulding is slated to drive BK Racing’s No. 23 Toyota.

Last year, Brad Keselowski led the final seven laps to win his first race at Atlanta. He beat Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity Series

There are 43 cars entered for the Rinnai 250.

Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Ty Dillon are the only full-time Cup drivers entered.

Tommy Joe Martins is entered in the No. 8 Chevrolet owned by B.J. McLeod Motorsports.

Austin Cindric will drive the No. 12 Ford owned by Team Penske.

Kyle Benjamin will drive Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota.

John Hunter Nemechek will make his first start in Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet.

Chase Briscoe will make his Xfinity Series debut in the No. 60 Ford owned by Roush Fenway Racing.

Last year, Kyle Busch won this race over Keselowski and Harvick after leading 26 of 163 laps from the pole.

Click here for the entry list.

Truck Series

There are 34 entries for the Active Pest Control 200.

Busch will make his first start of the year in his No. 4 Toyota.

Joe Nemechek is entered in the No. 8 Chevrolet.

Two entries, the No. 0 Chevrolet owned by Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing and the No. 1 Chevrolet owned by TJL Motorsports, do not have drivers announced yet.

Last year, Christopher Bell won this race from the pole after leading 99 of 130 laps. He beat Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter.

Click here for entry list.

Darrell Wallace Jr. picks up sponsor for Atlanta Cup race

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Darrell Wallace Jr. followed up the biggest day of his racing career with a new sponsor announcement.

A day after finishing second in the Daytona 500, it was announced that Wallace and his No. 43 Chevrolet will be sponsored by Driving 101 in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Driving 101 operates the NASCAR Racing Experience, Richard Petty Driving Experience and Mario Andretti Racing Experience.

The NASCAR Racing Experience will be on the hood of Wallace’s car.

MORE: Keeping up with Richard Petty after Darrell Wallace’s historic Daytona 500

The NASCAR Racing Experience is an experiential racing company offering realistic racing programs to motorsports fans at 19 tracks across the United States. The Mario Andretti Racing Experience is held at 15 tracks.

“It’s great to see partners coming on board to support us,” Wallace said in a press release. “I’m all about getting fans involved in racing, and nobody does that better than the NASCAR Racing Experience. They allow fans to race the cars we drive. It’s the best way to get on the same track and in the same cars we race. That’s really cool and I’m pumped they are on our car this weekend.”

Wallace is the first full-time African-American driver in the Cup Series since Wendell Scott in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

He became the first to compete in the Daytona 500 since Scott in 1969.

His finish Sunday came in just his fifth Cup start.

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