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Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota extend relationship

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Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota have extended their relationship, NBC Sports has confirmed.

No details on the agreement were made available. RacinBoys.com first reported the extension.

The news of the extension comes with JGR’s Kyle Busch in the midst of a three-race win streak, the most recent coming last Saturday in the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway.

JGR’s Cup driver roster includes Busch, Denny Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones.

JGR has been partnered with Toyota since 2008 when it switched from Chevrolet.

Since then JGR has one Cup championship (Busch, 2015) and 93 wins in Cup. It also has two Xfinity championships. In that time, Toyota has won the Cup manufacturer’s championship twice (2016, 2017) and the Xfinity manufacturer’s title four times.

Key wins for JGR with Toyota include the Daytona 500 (Hamlin, 2016), the Brickyard 400 (Kyle Busch, twice), the Southern 500 (five times) and Coke 600 (Carl Edwards, 2015).

Since its inception in 1992, JGR has driven under the banners of Chevrolet (1992-96), Pontiac (1997-2002), Chevrolet (2000-07) and Toyota.

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Ryan Preece refuses to be obstacle to his racing dreams

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There were 10 laps left in Saturday’s Xfinity race, but Ryan Preece had no idea he was so close to paying off the most valuable debt of his racing career and likely his life.

Preece was second on the final restart of the Fitzgerald Glider Kits 300 when he was told there were only 10 circuits of Bristol Motor Speedway left.

“I asked (10 laps) to when,” Preece said afterward. “It went by so quick that I thought there was still 60 (laps) or so to go. I didn’t think it was that quick. I wasn’t thinking about the $100,000, I knew we’d be in good shape. I tell everybody this and I mean it, I come here to win races. I don’t come to finish second.”

He didn’t. After pulling ahead of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Brandon Jones, Preece went on to claim his second Xfinity win in seven starts in the last two seasons.

Preece’s reward?

The first $100,000 payout for this year’s Dash 4 Cash program.

“I don’t think you can say winning $100,000 doesn’t feel good,” Preece said. “I know what it’s going to do for me and my life, and I can officially say that I’m going to be paid off with everything I risked last year and this is a big day for me.”

Before 2017, Preece was a lifer in the modified racing community in the Northeast who had 36 Xfinity starts, including one full-time season in 2016 with JD Motorsports. His best result in that time was a 10th at Darlington.

Preece was almost resigned to racing modifieds the rest of his life. But then Carl Edwards unexpectedly retired from Cup competition. That set off a chain of events that resulted in Preece making four Xfinity starts in 2017 for JGR, winning one race (Iowa) and placing in the top five in each race.

He was able to make those four starts thanks to help from regional sponsors that backed him in his modified racing and a friend and racing owner who lent him money.

Their investment led to 10 more starts for Preece with national sponsors this year and him being able to pay off his debt after just his third start.

“We have been gaining on it every time that I’ve strapped in this race car,” Preece said. “Without these two crew chiefs (Chris Gabehart and Eric Phillips), without these teams, without Joe Gibbs Racing and the equipment that they give you to go out there, that risk wouldn’t have came true.”

The week before the Bristol race Preece said he approaches every race he competes in as if it’s his last. But the 27-year-old driver still has more chances to establish a future for himself this season.

“It’s a chance to build a future for myself,” said Preece, who will be back in a JGR car in July at Daytona. “Where I’m going to be in October or after this win, I don’t have a clue. All I know is I’m not going to be the one that prevents me from going further. I’m not going to be the excuse at the end of the season and say, ‘Man, if I won this race or if I did this different,’ I’m not going to look back and say that. I’m going to do everything I can to win and make sure that I’m not the weak link.”

Preece was asked whether he considers himself a role model for other short track racers toiling to achieve their racing dreams.

“To be honest with you, if people want to label me that, that’s fine,” Preece said. “I’m not going to label myself as that. I like to make my own way through in life. Would I advise somebody to do what I did? Probably not, but it was the only way I was going to get the chance. I wanted that chance and it all worked out. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way.”

And now, $100,000 richer, Preece can go back to worry about the things others those in their 20s usually do.

“A mortgage, car payments, insurance and typical things like that,” Preece said. “What I also enjoy and what’s pretty cool is that yes, I may not be going to Richmond, but I’m going to stay for the debrief on Monday, I’m going to do all my obligations and when I fly home Monday night or Tuesday morning, I will go to work just like everybody else.”

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Carl Edwards ‘enjoying life’ on the farm

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Former driver Carl Edwards says he’s “having fun, enjoying life” and doesn’t have plans to return to racing.

Edwards talked with host Claire B. Lang on “Dialed In” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Wednesday night.

Edwards shocked the sport when he announced in January 2017 that he was leaving. He returned to his home in Columbia, Missouri.

“I’m basically just doing what I told everybody I was doing, spent a lot of time with friends and family and traveling a lot, farming a lot and really enjoying it,’’ Edwards told Lang.

Asked about any return to racing, Edwards said: “I don’t have any plans to come back. I do miss a lot of people.’’

Asked about any potential political ambitions, Edwards said: “You never know. I think like probably almost every person listening to this channel right now, I really believe in, I believe in America, I believe the Constitution is the set of rules that let us have all this success and freedom. I care about that being there for generations to come. If sometime in the future there is a chance for me to help that cause, try to lend some assistance to not letting us get off track, then heck yeah, I would consider, but, no, there is not some campaign started. I’m not going to be doing anything anytime soon.’’

Edwards made his Cup debut in August 2004 at Michigan International Speedway, finishing 10th in a race won by Greg Biffle.

Edwards won 28 Cup races in 445 starts. Every retired driver who has at least as many wins and is eligible for the Hall of Fame has been inducted. Jeff Gordon is eligible for the first time this year. Edwards and Tony Stewart will be eligible for Hall of Fame consideration next year.

Edwards’ 28 wins includes the 2015 Coca-Cola 600 and 2015 Southern 500. He won four Cup races at Bristol and Texas, his highest victory total at any track. Edwards also won 38 Xfinity races in 245 starts.

At the end of the interview Wednesday, Edwards was asked if he had any final words for fans.

“I think I would just say thank you to everybody,’’ he said. “Thank you to the fans, the competitors and everyone, the tracks and NASCAR. That part of my life was just spectacular. I wouldn’t trade one second of it for anything. And then I would say, I just hope everybody out there is enjoying what they’re doing and you’re getting the most out of every day and really having fun.’’

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Bump & Run: Biggest upsets in NASCAR

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In light of UMBC’s upset of Virginia in the NCAA basketball tournament, what’s an upset in NASCAR that stands out to you?

Nate Ryan: David Gilliland in the Xfinity race at Kentucky Speedway in 2006. That’s the closest approximation in modern-day NASCAR of what the Retrievers pulled off last Friday.

Dustin Long: David Gilliland’s Xfinity win at Kentucky in 2006 with a part-time and independent team. Remarkable upset that eventually led to a Cup ride.

Daniel McFadin: Front Row Motorsports’ two Cup wins, at Talladega in 2013 and Pocono in 2016. The first because David Ragan‘s surge to the lead on the final lap is the definition of “Where did he come from?” The second, because Chris Buescher earned his first Cup win via pit strategy and … fog.

Jerry Bonkowski: Actually, a two-part answer. First, when Trevor Bayne came out of nowhere and was pushed to the win in the 2011 Daytona 500 by Carl Edwards. And then there was the 1990 Daytona 500, when underdog Derrike Cope won.

What was something that stood out to you from the West Coast swing?

Nate Ryan: That the storylines from the end of last season (Toyotas, particularly Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch, are fast; Kevin Harvick is a championship contender; Hendrick Motorsports still is searching) generally have remained intact.

Dustin Long: Overlooked was that Erik Jones was one of only three drivers (Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. were the others) to score a top-10 finish in all three races.

Daniel McFadin: Joey Logano going from 16th to first in four laps in the Xfinity race on Saturday thanks to fresh tires. It’s the closest thing to a video game I’ve ever seen in real life.

Jerry Bonkowski: I thought for sure that we’d see more success from some of the young drivers. But when it came down to it, veterans won all three races. Sooner or later, the young drivers have to start making more of a name for themselves, guys like Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, William Byron and others. And by making a name for themselves, I mean winning.

What’s a special Martinsville memory you have?

Nate Ryan: John Andretti rallying from a lap down to win the first race I covered (and attended) there in April 1999. I was crossing the track in Turn 1 when Andretti drove the No. 43 right by into victory lane … with “The King” sitting on the driver’s window opening (to an enormous cheer from the crowd).

Dustin Long: John Andretti’s April 1999 win, which completed a weekend sweep for Petty Enterprises. Jimmy Hensley won the Truck race for the organization the day before Andretti’s victory. “It looked like the good old times,’’ Petty said in victory lane after riding in on the driver’s window opening of the No. 43 car.

Daniel McFadin: When I covered my first race there in the fall of 2014 as an intern for Sporting News. It turned out to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s first and only win at the track and the only time I attended a race he won. He’s retired now so I can say he’s my favorite driver. I still have confetti from the celebration in a plastic bag. 

Jerry Bonkowski: This is more of a sad rather than special memory. I was at the fall race in 2004 when the Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed into nearby Bull Mountain, killing all onboard. We got word about halfway through the race that there had been an incident, and as we got closer to the end of the race, things became confirmed. I recall it as if it was yesterday, and it’s a day I’ll never forget.

Friday 5: Looking to the past to enhance NASCAR’s future

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As some of its most popular drivers retire, NASCAR has the chance to tap into their knowledge to help push the sport forward.

Question is if NASCAR will do so.

The sport is in the midst of a generational change in its driver lineup. Gone are Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth (at least for now). Likely to be gone in the near future are Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and Elliott Sadler — all drivers 40 or older.

Think about the wealth of knowledge they carry about the sport. Think about how NASCAR could benefit from their consultation. Both Burton and Gordon were a part of the group NASCAR assembled that created stage racing, so it’s clear their opinions matter.

Admittedly, some drivers will have other plans for their post-racing career and won’t have the time or interest to do so, but for those willing to help the sport, NASCAR needs to find a role for them. 

There’s plenty former drivers can do. They can help bridge gaps, provide a different perspective, be a listening board and an agent for change. 

Harvick has become more vocal in the last year about ways to improve ties to grassroots racing. He’s suggested that the Camping World Truck Series run more races at local short tracks and questioned why the K&N Pro Series West no longer competes at Phoenix and other big tracks.

“Sometimes we look at our sport from the top down instead of the bottom up,’’ Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” this week. “At this grassroots level, that’s where all your hardcore fans live.’’

One doesn’t have to listen to Harvick long to hear his passion for short track racing. As a former Cup champion and host of a national radio show, his words carry weight. He also is one of action. Thursday night, he competed in the K&N West opener at Kern County Raceway in Harvick’s hometown of Bakersfield, California.

Even for all the behind-the-scenes work he’s done, Harvick still has to focus on his racing career and there will be times throughout the season he won’t be able to focus as much on such issues.

That’s where a retired driver can help. It’s becoming more difficult for former drivers to find a role in the sport. Ownership isn’t a viable option for many because it has become so expensive. There are only so many TV jobs available. Same with executive roles for teams.

If there isn’t a place in those areas, that’s where NASCAR should enter and provide a spot.

Could former Cup drivers play a role in strengthening the bonds between NASCAR and local tracks? It’s certainly worth a look. (Photo: Getty Images)

For all the work Harvick has done on grassroots, he could use help tightening the bonds between NASCAR and local racing. Burton, whose son, Harrison, has come up through such ranks, has seen the sport from many levels and could provide a way to work on such solutions. Earnhardt often has expressed an interest in short track racing and noted how he might just show up a track to race at some point. Short-track racing is a passion for Stewart. There are likely others who could also play a role in needed.

It’s not just grassroots racing these experienced racers could help.

A retired driver could serve as an adviser to the Drivers Council. Just as with any work-related group, a lot of good ideas can arise, but it can be difficult for those involved to take a deeper look into matters because of how busy they are. Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt have served on the council before, although such experience shouldn’t preclude someone else, maybe someone such as Dale Jarrett or Burton or Labonte, from a role to make that group even more effective.

Whenever Sadler decides to no longer race, he is someone who could be looked at in some advisory role to help raise the Xfinity Series’ level should he want to do something like that. Sadler’s passion for the sport is evident, and his experience, even now, is invaluable for a series that gets younger each year.

One of the things NASCAR recently touted with Ben Kennedy moving into an executive role for the Camping World Truck Series is that he was coming from the driver’s seat and would lend a fresh perspective.

While NASCAR doesn’t have to hire every former driver, why not have some serve as consultants?

There are many of them out there. And there are enough issues in the sport where they could help.

2. Time’s a ticking A subtle change this season is that Friday Cup practice has been shortened at some tracks by as much as 35 minutes compared to last year.

The result is that teams spend less time in race trim — if any at all — in Friday practice because that is the only session before qualifying. That can make an impact.

“You don’t get that little bit of baseline,’’ Erik Jones told NBC Sports of not running in race setup on Friday. “We were able to take that baseline from Friday (last year) and then adjust from it from there for Saturday and maybe have a little bit better fire off. It makes the (simulator) more valuable and makes the team guys more valuable to unload well.’’

Erik Jones says less Friday practice time can prove challenging for young drivers, especially rookies. (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones benefitted from the longer Friday practice sessions last year as a rookie. He often started in race setup to run multiple laps and get his braking and turning points set before his team switched to qualifying trim. But that was when teams often had 85 minutes for practice on Friday.

At Las Vegas, Friday’s practice was 30 minutes shorter than last year. Jones ran seven laps in practice this year compared to 16 a year ago.

At Phoenix, Friday’s practice was 35 minutes shorter than last year. Jones ran 10 practice laps this year compared to 16 a year ago.

Practice today at Auto Club Speedway is 35 minutes shorter than Friday’s session last year. The only concession is that the first practice Saturday will be five minutes longer than that session a year ago. Still, teams have 30 minutes less practice time for the weekend.

Jones can’t imagine the challenge Cup rookies William Byron and Darrell Wallace Jr. face with the shorter Friday sessions.

“You go to these tracks, and the Cup cars just drive so different,’’ Jones said. “You don’t really have a good idea of what you’re looking at. It’s just more valuable as a rookie to fire off in race trim and only take, hopefully, that one (qualifying) trim run you’re going to get from the time it’s going to take to switch over. There are times even now I struggle firing off in (qualifying) trim. It’s not an easy thing to do.’’

3. Which three-peat is better?

Kevin Harvick enters this weekend having won the past three races in a row.

Kyle Larson enters this weekend having won the past three races on 2-mile tracks.

Harvick’s streak was done in consecutive weekends at three different tracks – Atlanta, Las Vegas and ISM Raceway.

Larson’s streak was done at two different tracks — Michigan and Auto Club Speedway — but over a period of nearly five months.

Which streak is more impressive?

4. Fast start

Kurt Busch said before the year that a focus for the No. 41 team was stage points. With that in mind, it wasn’t surprising that crew chief Billy Scott kept Busch out during the caution just before the end of stage 2 at Phoenix last weekend. Busch won the stage but then started deep in the field.

After four races, only Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick has scored more stage points than Busch. Harvick has 53 stage points and Busch has 42. Busch had eight stage points at this time last year.

5. March Madness

With so much talk about the college basketball tournament, there’s a form of March Madness in NASCAR for many competitors.

In a way, Kevin Harvick’s hot start isn’t surprising. Seven of his 26 Cup victories since 2011 have come in March. No other month compares for him.

Harvick also can finish strong with five wins in November and four in October since 2011.

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