Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon have second-best races of year with Southern 500 top fives

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – In the Southern 500, the 25th race in a very long season, Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon had their best nights of the year.

That’s saying a lot about the seasons of Busch, who won the Daytona 500, and Dillon, who won the Coke 600, two of NASCAR’s other three crown jewels.

Both finished in the top five of Sunday night’s race, with Busch placing third ahead of Dillon.

Busch led seven laps, his most this season, following a round of green-flag pit stops in the middle of the final stage before being overran by Martin Truex Jr. with 42 laps left.

“I was hoping for one more yellow,” Busch said. “If there was a yellow with 30 to go, we were a really good car on short-run speed and that was the longest run at the end. Those guys caught us on their fresher tires. But to just to be in a position to win the Southern 500 is great. Didn’t quite get the job done, but third is really nice for a big, marquee race.”

In Busch’s 21st Darlington start, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver earned his third top five. It was his first since 2010 when he was with Team Penske.

It was also just his third top five since he won the Daytona 500 after his No. 41 Ford survived a wave of leaders dropping off with empty fuel tanks.

“We’re chipping away at it,” Busch said. “The Daytona 500 win was great, but it seemed like it put us behind for a while. But honestly, the balance in the Ford, that’s what we’ve been working on and now we’re finding things we change on the car and it hooks up the front and the rear at the same time. We haven’t been hooking up the front, unhooking the rear and vice versa. So it feels we’re finding the balance on our Ford that way.”

Sunday’s finish was also his second top five in a row after a late surge two weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway to place fifth.

The results come in the month since it was announced SHR was not picking up his option for 2018.

Though he’s safely locked into the playoffs, Busch said his team was already in postseason mode.

“We’ve had a couple good runs, but, still, we’ve got 11 weeks ahead of us,” Busch said. “We treated this whole weekend like it was the playoffs. Richmond will be the same thing next week.”

While Busch prayed for a late caution, Dillon was giving grace for the race staying green for the final 101 laps.

Dillon enjoyed his best night since gambling on fuel to win the Coke 600 in May for his first Cup win.

On Sunday, Dillon gambled instead on tires over the last stretch of the race.

“We thought our car was really good on long runs, that’s (why we made the decision) to stay out there and it’s kind of scary because (you might) have a flat tire or you just run out of tire,” Dillon said. “I was good enough to save tires. I like long runs, always been a long-run kind of driver. Short runs, I’ve been working hard to get better at. Glad it went long there at the end.”

While it gave him his third top five of the year, it was his first in 13 races. But it was also just his fourth top 10.

By this point last year the Richard Childress Racing driver had 10 of the 13 top-10 finishes he would earn.

“We’re never giving up, and RCR is working hard,” Dillon said. “We were down pretty bad. That race at Charlotte, after that we’ve got a slump. Just a lot of hard work going on at the shop knowing we’ve got to get better. It feels pretty good to have run like this.”

Dillon put together his race in a paint scheme and firesuit honoring Dale Earnhardt’s 1987 win in the Southern 500.

“I’ll tell you what, this is one (firesuit) I’ll probably want to keep, man,” Dillon said. “To bring out this Dale Earnhardt car, it means so much to so many. I’m glad we represented it well. This is a pretty hot firesuit, I must admit it. I love it. I might get Dale Jr .to sign it and put it up.”

Truck practice report at Atlanta

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Justin Haley was the fastest in the first of two practices Friday for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He had a top lap of 178.029 mph.

Daytona winner Johnny Sauter was second with a lap of 177.040 mph. He was followed by Myatt Snider (177.040 mph), Stewart Friesen (176.995) and Noah Gragson (176.589).

There were no incidents in the session.

Final Truck practice will be from 4:05 – 4:50 p.m. ET.

Click here for Truck 1 practice

Police investigating vandalism, theft at North Wilkesboro Speedway

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The Wilkes County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a report of vandalism and theft at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, the track, which last hosted a NASCAR Cup race in 1996, suffered damage of about $10,000 when several trespassers were on the grounds last weekend. No arrests have been made.

The report states that several windows were broken and other damage was done to the structures. Also, large amounts of electrical wire and circuit breakers were reported missing.

The investigation continues.

North Wilkesboro Speedway hosted NASCAR Cup races from 1949-96. Winners included Fireball Roberts, Buck Baker, Junior Johnson, Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon, who won the final race there.

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Others’ predictions motivating Austin Dillon after Daytona 500 win: ‘I guess they don’t believe it yet’

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HAMPTON, Ga. – Fresh off the greatest victory of his NASCAR career, Austin Dillon already has motivation to win the next.

The Richard Childress Racing driver heard others predict this week that the Daytona 500 would be his only victory this season.

“I think on Race Hub, Brad (Keselowski) and Chad (Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson) saying that we weren’t going to win again,” Dillon said Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “So, that was good to hear. That was something to get me fired up a little bit more and our team, get those competitive juices flowing again. So, we will just keep rocking it however we can. We still have a lot to work on.”

Prior to Daytona, Dillon’s lone win in four seasons as a full-time Cup driver came in the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. His No. 3 Chevrolet qualified for the playoffs the past two seasons, but his top 10s (13 to four) and average finish (15.9 to 18.6) slipped demonstrably from 2016 to ’17.

“So yesterday in my group text with my buddies they watched Chad Knaus and Brad Keselowski, and it was like, ‘All right, it’s time to keep knocking them down, I guess they don’t believe it yet,’” Dillon said. “We’ve got to step up though at RCR. We’ve still got a lot to prove. It’s a speedway race, even though it’s the biggest race in our deal, it’s a speedway race.  We’ve got a lot more to prove.

“(Competition executive) Andy Petree and all the guys are RCR are working hard. I think coming down to a two-car team move is big for us. We’ve got to take advantage of that. I’m not going to lie, I’m tired right now, but we are going to kick butt this weekend and get back regrouped and get in the groove and try and gain as many bonus points as we can.”

But qualifying for the playoffs by winning the season opener should be a morale booster that avoids any letdown.

“The one thing they don’t have right now that we have is a win,” Dillon said. “So, we are on top right now, and no matter what they can’t take that away, and we are going to keep working.  I don’t expect us to lay down at all. I feel like now more than ever we need to go head on and go after it.”

Xfinity practice report from Atlanta

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Christopher Bell posted the fastest lap in the first of two Xfinity practice sessions Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Bell posted a lap of 178.447 mph. He was followed by Joey Logano (177.323 mph), Cole Custer (175.933), Ryan Reed (175.688) and Kevin Harvick (175.487). Daytona winner Tyler Reddick (175.388) was sixth on the speed chart.

There were no incidents in the session.

Final Xfinity practice will be from 3:05 – 3:55 p.m. ET

Click here for practice 1 report