What drivers said after the 59th Daytona 500

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Kurt Busch won his first Daytona 500, while favorites such as Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and others either fell short or were involved in the multitude of wrecks that made up Sunday’s 59th edition of “The Great American Race.”

And as can be expected, with both the excitement of the win and the disappointment of early exits, drivers had lots to talk about after the race:

Kurt Busch (winner): “There is nothing predictable about this race anymore and the more years that have gone by that I didn’t win I kept trying to go back to patterns that I had seen in the past. My mirror fell off with 30 laps to go and I couldn’t even see out the back. And I thought that was an omen. Throw caution to the wind. The more unpredictability that keeps unfolding at the Daytona 500, I predicted it. It just got crazy and wild and I am so proud of all the drivers at the end. We put on a show for a full fuel run and nobody took each other out and it was one of the smartest chess games I have seen out there. All the hard work that Ford and SHR put into this — this Ford Fusion is in Daytona’s victory lane.”

Ryan Blaney (finished 2nd): “I tried to make a move with 10 to go and I didn’t go anywhere. I thought we were kind of stuck. Luckily we had the 22 (Joey Logano) with us. I kind of helped him and he kind of helped me. … I got to second behind the 41 (Kurt Busch) somehow and that kept us going the whole way. I laid back to the 47 (AJ Allmendinger) thinking I’d get a good run and I was sputtering and running out of gas on the backstretch. It was a solid race. … Not what we wanted but a pretty good run and start to the season.”

AJ Allmendinger (3rd): “I was kind of looking at the fuel pressure gauge, the window, the mirror; and the last 10 laps, knowing that we were pretty close, I was just trying to run in that pack and run quarter throttle and trying to hold my spot the best I could. I knew everybody was close and it might come down to who did run out of fuel. … More than anything else just to have a good start to this 2017 season, the effort is there. Our equipment is there. We’ve just got to put it together. Hopefully this is a great start.”

Aric Almirola (4th): “It was a wild day. I can’t believe how many cars were involved in wrecks here and there. We were able to get through quite a few of them and our car just didn’t quite have the speed we needed to make the big runs and complete the big passes, but all in all it was a good day for our Smithfield Ford Fusion. … We’ll take it and get ready for Atlanta.  The Daytona 500, you always want to come out of here with a good start to the season.”

Paul Menard (5th): “It’s a good finish. It was exciting. We were right in the middle of half of the crashes. Got a little bit of right rear damage early, but the guys fixed it. (Crew chief Matt Borland) made a really good call to short pit for some fuel so we didn’t have to take as much fuel at the end. We were on pretty old tires, and I couldn’t run the bottom very well. Those guys were coming on the bottom at the end. I was kind of tentative to get down there. Ran out of fuel out of turn two.  I just nursed it home. I am just really proud of my guys on my Menards Chevrolet. Looking forward to Atlanta.”

Joey Logano (6th): “I just couldn’t get anyone to go for it at the end. Everyone was so conservative and I don’t understand why. We kept trying to go to the bottom and make a run down there and no one would go with us. We had three cars that kind of wanted to do it, but it’s a matter of getting the right run and getting the right cars behind us and we didn’t have enough of them and couldn’t get up to the lead pack. I don’t know why everyone was so conservative today. … It was crazy to say the least. Right after the last segment it was like everyone turned up the wick a little bit and at the end it was like it burned out.”

Kasey Kahne (7th): “It was tough early being in the back. It took a while to get the track position. But once we got it, we had a great Farmers Insurance Chevrolet. I was just waiting on Kurt (Busch). We were just waiting and waiting and waiting. I kind of gave Kurt that last boost going into one, but then I ran out of gas and the field drove away. It’s disappointing we ran out like that. … I thought it was really good Daytona 500. Glad to be a part of it.”

Michael Waltrip (8th): “It’s going to be a great memory you know to have a top 10. I had so many times I was in the middle of a crash and just missed it. So, you do a good job and you get lucky both. At the end I just lost the draft and that is unfortunate because I was able to weave my way past people. I had a really, really good handling car. I’m thankful that I survived and I’m thankful for being able to run upfront and I’m happy about the finish. I’m ready for it to be my last one so it’s going to be a good one to remember it by.”

Matt DiBenedetto (9th): “That’s a heck of a way to start the year. Holy cow. We survived. We got in that one crash and we hit pretty hard. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s gonna be a long day,’ but the guys did a great job patching it up. It still ran fine. I had good speed. The motor ran great all day, so it was cool. … I’m excited to be back racing and thankful to have a ride. … Being in the Daytona 500 in the first place is unbelievable, so I’m gonna say this one does feel really good just because it’s the Daytona 500 and it’s been my dream since I was five to even be in it, so to get a top-10 in it, I’m just checking off all these dreams come true.”

Trevor Bayne (10th): “What a day. The first-half was pretty calm. I was cruising in the back waiting for all the wrecks to happen and they didn’t. Then I got caught up with the 48;  I’m not sure if it was my fault. I feel bad if it was my fault. I’m spinning and trying to hang on to it, and did. A few laps later we were running in the middle again and somebody hit me in the right rear. It was just nuts. It was like a pinball for a few laps. But at the end of the day we had a good finish, a top 10 finish at Daytona. Overall, we had a really strong car all Speedweeks. This Ford was really fast.”

Brendan Gaughan (11th): “It seemed a little calmer than the Truck race or the Xfinity race. Those had a lot more carnage. But there was still a lot. It is just the nature of Daytona racing.  But it was fun. I enjoy racing here. I am grateful to Beard Motorsports folks for the opportunity in this Chevy with ECR power. I had a top-10 until about 10 feet before finish line. I wish I could have got that for them.”

Kyle Larson (12th): “I almost had a shot to win. I knew we would be close on fuel. They had told me to save as much as I could on the cautions and stuff.  When we went green I was the leader and was wide-open for a handful of laps there. Once I fell back and we got single file up top I was able to run three-quarter or half throttle somewhere around there to save as much fuel as I could just to try and get to the end.  We got to three to go or so and I knew I had to make my move soon to try and get to the win and was able to pass a couple of cars and Chase (Elliott) ran out of fuel and got a good run on the No. 78 (Martin Truex, Jr.) and got by him. I had my fingers crossed, but just came up half-a-lap short on fuel.”

Chase Elliott (14th): “It was a disappointing finish to a good day. Just one of those things you can’t do anything about. I’m happy with how the NAPA team performed, and we are going to learn from it. I’m proud of how hard everyone worked all week. We’re looking forward to getting back at it in Atlanta.”

Landon Cassill (16th): “It was a crazy race. The one wreck was okay and fair and square, and I was kind of in the middle of it all. We fixed the car real good, though. The car wasn’t that badly damaged. The second wreck I was clear of it and there was just one last straggler that hooked me and that was just too bad. It kind of killed the car enough to where we didn’t have speed and from that point we just kind of outlasted the field and got a 16th-place finish, which is okay.”

Austin Dillon (19th): “We had a good day. We put ourselves in good positions all day. We just have to get better. Do not have anything for the really fast cars, but we put ourselves in good positions and that is what happens. Ran out of fuel. Bummer. We will go to Atlanta.”

Kevin Harvick (22nd): “We just got some cars up there that didn’t need to be up there and wound up doing more than their car could do. … We had, I felt, the fastest car in the field and right in contention for both segments and then it’s all tore up and it came to an end.  What do you do? … I think that’s the fastest car I’ve ever had here, so it’s kind of disappointing.”

David Ragan (25th): “The bottom lane stalled a little bit and the 17 (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) had a really good run, I don’t know if I got checked up a bit. He was coming hard and touched me. I got a little loose and tried to chase it and he just couldn’t get off me and ran out of room. It was unfortunate to be in that spot but we got lucky that we didn’t get damaged any more than we did. There were a lot of wrecks all day. You always second guess yourself on things and hard your race. … We had a good car. I’m glad we were able to work hard and get some spots there at the end.”

Brad Keselowski (27th): “We did the best we could and controlled everything we could control on our own today. … I thought the stages were good actually and added a nice little element to the race. I didn’t notice guys being any more aggressive than usual. There were a lot of accidents but I would have to see the replays to understand why. … The Fords did a really good job working together and establishing position which helped us avoid one wreck but we couldn’t avoid the 10 of them that there have been today. Our Miller Lite Ford Fusion was fast though, all the Fords were fast. Roush Yates brought some great power here to Daytona. It is exciting.”

Jamie McMurray (28th): “I went to get to the inside of the No. 24 (Chase Elliott) and I got to his left rear and got him turned a little. And then I don’t know who was behind me, but someone got into my left rear, and then I was kind of just along for the ride whenever that happens.”

Daniel Suarez (29th): “I just don’t feel like I did a really good job in the first part of the race. I made a lot of mistakes. I just wasn’t able to slow down enough to get into my (pit) box and then I made a couple mistakes there. We were able to overcome those mistakes and put ourselves back into the game. And actually I was so ready to race because I had been taking care of my car a lot, a lot. I was asking my team, possibly, it’s time to race? It’s time to race? I guess it was still too early.”

Ty Dillon (30th): “Just a bummer because I felt like I had a fast-enough car to get back up there and have a good finish and capitalize on a day that went sour early.  Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for us. … I don’t know what it is about this year, maybe it’s the segments, I don’t know.  It’s got everybody a little more amped up, but there are not a whole lot of cars finishing. I dodged all of them yesterday and ran out of gas in the end and didn’t dodge them all today. It’s just part of racing here at Daytona. That is why it is one of the toughest races to win.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (31st): “We were just running around the top and I just got hit in the left-rear. I’m not really sure what happened below us, but it was a bummer of a day. I thought we brought some really fast Fords down here and just hate that we didn’t really get a result to show for it. … Stage racing hasn’t contributed to any crashes. We finished every stage under green with no issues, so I would say stage racing was not the issue. A couple of them happened right after restarts.”

Clint Bowyer (32nd): “Man I hate the way it ended. No way around it. We got caught up with someone else’s mess. Just really upset right now. We’ve had a good week down here and we still have a lot of racing left in 2017, so I’m pumped about the year. We had a really fast Mobil 1 Ford today.”

Danica Patrick (33rd): “I don’t really know. I just know we were all three-wide and it looks like the 6 (Trevor Bayne) and 48 (Jimmie Johnson) had something happen. There was nowhere to go. They just kept coming and hitting me. … It was the funnest 500 I’ve ever had. Well, probably not 500, more like 300 or 250. It is a real shame. I feel like we could have been a contender at the end, for sure we could have been an influencer.”

Jimmie Johnson (34th): “That could have been avoided and it wasn’t called for. From the minute, I got off of Turn 2 on the entire back straightaway, I kept getting hit and the rear tires are off the ground. I know there is a lot of energy behind me in the pack, but I didn’t have a chance. I fought it the whole straightaway and finally got turned going into (Turn) 3. It’s very unfortunate. I hate it for Lowe’s. I hate it for Chevrolet. We’ll go to Atlanta next week and see what we can do there.”

Chris Buescher (35th): “We just got going in that stage and thought we were running pretty good. It got three wide there, but we were running decently there in the middle. We went down the back three wide and we got to turn three and it looked like all of a sudden, we were four wide, we just ran out of real estate. … It ended up looking like something we saw the last two nights of racing. That is something we didn’t expect to happen here.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (37th): “I really enjoyed the whole week. We had a lot of fun. Everybody was looking forward to getting back to the race track. It meant a lot to me. And I’m just sorry we weren’t able to deliver a better result today for all our fans and everybody that was looking forward to today. We had a great car. At least we went out leading the race. … I don’t really know what happened there with the wreck. It just looks like Kyle (Busch) had a flat tire. I turned the wheel left, but you’re also out of the gas there and it got on the splitter and just kind of goes straight. … It’s going to be a fun season and we’ve got pretty high spirits. This was not the result we wanted today; but like I say, it’s been a great week.”

Kyle Busch (38th): “I don’t know if it was a left rear that went down or the right that went down but man, tore up three JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars in one hit and also Jr. (Dale Earnhardt Jr.). So I feel bad, horrible, for those guys, but man, nothing that we did wrong. You know obviously Goodyear tires just aren’t very good at holding air. It’s very frustrating when we have that down here every single year we’ve been here. Last year we had it as well too. … Thankfully we have I guess a segment point you know out of this day. That’s a positive. But man, you’re trying to win the Daytona 500 here you know. It’s just so disappointing.”

Erik Jones (39th): “We were just kind of riding around and trying to bide our time there. I think we were going to cycle out in a good spot and unfortunately I don’t know if Kyle (Busch) cut a tire or what but when we were cycling through those three cars there he just got loose into (turn) three and lost it and I got in the side of him. Couldn’t do much about it. … We spent most of the day kind of working our way up through and biding our time and we were finally in the position we wanted to be there to be cycled out with some JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) teammates and our Furniture Row teammate (Martin Truex Jr.). Nothing we could do.”

Matt Kenseth (40th): “Went into turn three, made sure I was clear and it looked like Kyle (Busch) spun out in front of Erik (Jones) and I didn’t have anywhere to go. So we had to kind of snake through there and into the corner at a weird angle. I looked back to make sure I was clear and when I looked back up they were already crashed in front of me and I already had Erik (Jones) parked on my hood. Just happened pretty quick. I just didn’t have anywhere to go. Never saw it happen and didn’t have anywhere to go.”

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NASCAR Cup Series point standings after Kurt Busch’s Daytona 500 win

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Kurt Busch has a 12-point lead over Ryan Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series standings after his win in the Daytona 500.

Busch has 56 points and becomes eligible for the playoffs.

Filling out the top five are Blaney, Joey Logano (-13), Kevin Harvick (-14) and AJ Allmendinger (-17).

Harvick has 42 points after winning the second stage of the race.

Kyle Busch is 29th with 11 points after winning the first stage and finishing 29th after a crash.

Click here for the full points report.

Monster victory: Kurt Busch wins first Daytona 500 on last-lap pass

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 59th running of the Daytona 500 was a story of victory lane debuts Sunday at Daytona International Speedway.

A driver, a team (with a new manufacturer) and a series title sponsor all celebrated for the first time on stock-car racing’s biggest stage.

Kurt Busch swept around the outside of Kyle Larson on a last-lap pass to win the Daytona 500, his first restrictor-plate victory in NASCAR’s premier series.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver finished 0.228 seconds ahead of Ryan Blaney in leading only the final circuit at the 2.5-mile oval. AJ Allmendinger was third, followed by Aric Almirola and Paul Menard. Larson, who ran out of fuel, finished 12th.

Busch’s team switched to Ford for the 2017 season and won in its debut Sunday with the manufacturer.

“It just got crazy and wild,” said Busch, who rebounded from being involved in a backstretch wreck on Lap 128 of 200. “It was one of the smartest chess games I have seen out there. All the hard work that Ford and SHR put into this.

“Here we are in victory lane. I can’t believe it.”

His No. 41 Fusion is sponsored by Monster Energy, which also is entering its first season as NASCAR’s new title sponsor.

“I tried not to put any extra pressure on my shoulders,” said Busch, the eight different driver to win the Daytona 500 in the past eight races. “I tried to rely on my team’s strengths and not focus on what I have been through with Monster Energy the last six years. They are a strong, big company, and they have chosen to be the entitlement sponsor, and I can’t be happier to do the job I am supposed to do as a Monster athlete, which is to win podiums and races.”

Busch had been winless in his previous 63 starts at the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway (which require restrictor plates to reduce speeds).

“There is nothing predictable about this race anymore and the more years that have gone by that I didn’t win, I kept trying to go back to patterns that I had seen in the past,” he said. “My mirror fell off with 30 laps to go, and I couldn’t even see out the back. And I thought that was an omen. Throw caution to the wind.”

It also was the first Daytona 500 win as a car owner for Tony Stewart, who retired after the 2016 season with a winless record in 17 starts in the race.

“The look on (co-owner) Gene Haas’ face right now, that smile, make it all worth it,” Stewart said. “It has been a really long hard winter, and I am so proud of everyone at SHR and Ford Performance. They really worked their tails off to get ready. Doug Yates and everybody at Roush Yates Engines brought unbelievable power all week.

“It was a crazy race, even crazier to sit and watch it from a pit box finally. If I had known all I had to do was retire, I would have retired 17 years ago if I knew it was what it took to win the race.”

Busch’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, hails from Daytona Beach.

“This is unbelievable,” Gibson said on Fox. “My mom, my dad, we sacrificed everything to put us in racing. I can’t thank them enough. Thanks Dad, Mom, I love you. I have a great family that put us in racing, and it’s just so emotional to come to my track and win. Unbelievable.”

Joey Logano was sixth, followed by Kasey Kahne, Michael Waltrip, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Trevor Bayne.

Chase Elliott, seeking his first NASCAR victory on the sport’s grandest stage, ran out of fuel while leading with three laps remaining. He finished 14th.

Who had a good race: Almirola gave a boost to Richard Petty Motorsports, which contracted to one car in the offseason. The No. 43 Ford led and ran in the top 10 for much of the second half.

Blaney rebounded in a backup car, taking the lead with some aggressive moves to score his career-best finish.

Almirola and Menard scored career-best Daytona 500 finishes, and Allmendinger tied his best at Daytona.

Who had a bad race: How much time do you have?

Kyle Busch’s recent trouble at Daytona continued when he lost control in Turn 4, and his No. 18 Toyota collected Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Erik Jones in the wreck.

Corey LaJoie’s Daytona 500 debut will be remembered for one of the more egregious rookie mistakes in the race’s history – a near head-on collision with the frontstretch wall after losing control while missing the entrance to the pits.

Former Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray was at the focal point of multiple multi-car pileups that took out Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Danica Patrick, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Daniel Suarez.

Notable: Kahne led for the first time since Oct. 25, 2015 at Talladega Superspeedway. … Kyle Busch won the first stage of the 2017 season (and in the history of points races in NASCAR’s premier series). … Kevin Harvick won the second stage. … Both Busch and Harvick crashed after picking up 10 points. … There were only five of 40 cars that weren’t listed as in a crash.

Quote of the race: “I really enjoyed the whole week. We had a lot of fun. Everybody was looking forward to getting back to the race track. It meant a lot to me. And I’m just sorry we weren’t able to deliver a better result today for all our fans and everybody that was looking forward to today. We had a great car. At least we went out leading the race.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished 37th in his return after missing the second half of the 2016 season (concussion).

What’s next: The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, 2:46 p.m., March 5 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Fox.

Racing with a purpose: Richard Childress Racing focused on returning to Cup victory lane

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Aligned side-by-side, NASCAR’s hierarchy is parked for all to see. Each race weekend, team haulers are positioned in the garage based on performance.

When the trucks arrived Feb. 16 at Daytona International Speedway to begin the new season, reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s hauler led the parade, followed by his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. Then came the Team Penske trucks. And Joe Gibbs Racing and three other organizations before the RCR trucks could park.

To walk from the Childress haulers to Johnson’s at the front of the field takes 136 steps. It’s a path that leads by exhaust-spewing cars, rumbling engines, scurrying crew members and gazing fans. Admittedly, some might take a few more steps, some not as many. But those steps more than anything measure where RCR is as it begins a critical season with Sunday’s Daytona 500.

A proud organization, which began with a headstrong driver and rocketed to prominence with an icon in the No. 3 car, has seen its place in the sport decline from its halcyon days.

“He and Dale Earnhardt, they were the standard,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said of Childress. “When I first started, I didn’t think anybody would ever beat them.’’

Now, the organization is mired in a three-year winless drought, its longest since 1983. Richard Childress Racing faces a challenge to remain competitive against Hendrick, Penske and Gibbs, which have combined to win 80 percent of the last 56 Cup races.

While teams are known to go through cycles where they’re not as competitive — Gibbs won two races in 2014 before winning 26 the next two seasons — it is rare for an organization to go multiple years without a win and return to a spot among the elite.

Ten organizations have won since RCR’s last Cup victory, which came 109 races ago at Phoenix International Raceway in Nov. 2013.

“It’s not cool,’’ Ryan Newman said of his and RCR’s winless droughts. “You take it personally, and you fight harder.”

The battle cry is to win now, a feeling spread by car owner Richard Childress and passed to every executive, driver, crew chief, mechanic and employee.

“I can promise you the winless drought is keeping him up at night,’’ said NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton, who drove for Childress from 2004-13, about his former boss. “He wants to win in the worst way. I’m sure the wick is turned up pretty high.’’

Nothing else matters for an organization that once was so used to winning.

HALL OF FAME CAREER

Richard Childress was among the independents who drove in NASCAR and never had the same backing as the sport’s stars.

All but raised at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Childress set out to drive when he was old enough. Sometimes just getting to a race was as much a challenge as racing.

Wife Judy recalls one time when it didn’t look as if her husband would be able to drive at Charlotte. His windshield was broke and he needed a replacement to compete. A search for a replacement proved futile. Childress rented a car and removed the windshield so he could put it on his car to race. After the race, he put the windshield back on the rental car and returned it.

While determined, Childress’ success was limited. As Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty and David Pearson won, Childress scored only three top-five finishes in 187 career starts in NASCAR’s premier series.

Childress realized he would be better off putting someone else in his car. The driver who replaced him in 1981? Dale Earnhardt.

The union lasted 11 races before Earnhardt went elsewhere for the 1982 season and Childress hired Ricky Rudd.

Two years later, Earnhardt joined Childress, forming one of the greatest teams in NASCAR history. They combined to win six championships and 67 races before Earnhardt’s death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

After Earnhardt’s death, Richard Childress Racing went through a transition period. The organization won only one race from 2004-05. The team recovered and won 16 races from 2010-13 for its best four-year stretch since the mid-1990s with Earnhardt.

Since, though, Childress has not been back to Victory Lane in the Cup Series.

FALLING BEHIND

How does an organization struggle to win after having so much success for so many years? It’s never an easy question. Rule changes can throw teams off. Sometimes another organization or manufacture finds something that gives those cars extra speed. Or it could one of many other things.

Sometimes success can hide the truth.

Three years ago, Newman nearly captured the championship despite not winning a race. The old Chase format rewarded consistency. While the Childress cars weren’t the fastest, they could challenge for a crown with a steady performance.

Dr. Eric Warren, RCR’s director of competition, admits that thinking would impact the team later.

“It kind of masked the fact that we lost that kind of ability to close out and get some wins,’’ he said.

“We’ve … had a lot of discussions over the winter with the crew chiefs and everything else that when I’m in that fifth or sixth place in the race, those moments when you’ve got to make the right kind of calls, we need to not be trying to protect a top-five finish.’’

There have been other issues as well. Austin Dillon needed time to adjust to the Cup series after joining in 2014. The organization needed to find the right people for the right jobs. The cars weren’t as strong.

Childress began to see some signs of progress last spring even after Newman crashed in a test at Pocono when a tire went down. The team had been trying some new suspension geometry. They used what they learned at Pocono in August.

Dillon, who had never finished better than 13th at Pocono, hounded leader Kyle Larson in what was viewed as a race to halfway with rain the area that day. Rain eventually arrived, allowing Chris Buescher to score the surprise win for Front Row Motorsports. Although Dillon finished 13th, he spent more than 89 percent of the race running in the top 15. Only three other drivers were in the top 15 more. One was his teammate Newman.

Richard Childress Racing took what it learned there and debuted new cars at Charlotte in the playoffs. Dillon advanced to that second round but wrecked after he was hit from behind by Martin Truex Jr. on a restart. Dillon had taken two tires on the pit stop during that caution while the rest of the field had taken four.

That incident played a role in Dillon losing a tiebreaker to Denny Hamlin to advance to the third round. A couple of weeks later at Texas, Dillon, with a new car, won the pole but wrecked after contact from Kevin Harvick. Newman showed speed two weeks later when he qualified third in the season finale in Miami, another 1.5-mile track, providing signs of progress on those tracks for the organization.

Of course, none of that guarantees any type of success this season.

“We have to work very hard to maintain our confidence and direction in our program and that means looking for incremental goals … and not allowing the ultimate prize that we’re trying to get to become overwhelming,’’ said Luke Lambert, crew chief for Newman. “If you want to climb Mt. Everest, you’ve got to do it one foot in front of the other.’’

PUTTING THE PUZZLE TOGETHER

In race shops full of cars, equipment and tools, it is the people that many say are the greatest commodity. Richard Childress Racing made a couple of key additions late last year.

Sammy Johns, a former crew chief and team executive, was hired to be the team’s operations director. Mark McArdle had held the position until leaving in Dec. 2015. His position was not filled but absorbed by Dr. Eric Warren.

“We missed that spot,’’ Warren said, noting the additional duties he had while also directing the competition efforts.

The team also added former crew chief Matt Borland to return to that role for Paul Menard. Borland is the third crew chief Menard has had since July 2016 as the organization seeks to find a way for that team to excel.

“You’ve got to keep bringing people to the team that are winners,’’ Warren said of the additions. “It’s important because that instinct of, ‘Hey, if I’m not winning, I’m upset.’ You have to have that kind of killer instinct.

“One of the things about Matt coming in is he has a very strong work ethic, been successful in the past. Not to take anything away from Slugger and Lambert, they both have great assets. We needed that, that person that can bridge the engineering side … but also has been a winning crew chief and an experienced crew chief.’’

WAITING TO CELEBRATE

The sport has been waiting years for the No. 3 to return to victory lane in a Cup race.

The number made famous by Dale Earnhardt, last went to victory lane in October 2000. Earnhardt charged from 18th to first in the final five laps to record the memorable victory. After Earnhardt’s death, Childress retired the No. 3 until Feb. 2014 when it returned with Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson.

While the number reverberates with race fans for what Earnhardt did, it has a special meaning for Dillon. When he and brother Ty told Childress they wanted to go racing, he got them go-karts. Ty wanted No. 2 because that was his father’s number when he raced. Austin wanted No. 3. Childress reminded him about the statue of that number because of Earnhardt. Austin told him that he wanted that number because that had been Childress’ number when he raced.

To older fans, the No. 3 always will represent Earnhardt. They eagerly await when that car will return what is to them it’s natural place — in victory lane.

“There’s so many things that could happen this year that would, I think, be really impactful for the sport,’’ said Fox Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip. “The 3 winning a race would be pretty big to me.’’

To do that will take a team effort. Dillon enters his fourth full season in Cup and second full season with crew chief Slugger Labbe.

Dillon said Labbe learned last year what type of motivation works best for Dillon.

“I think he’s constantly giving me a little bit of a push, but it’s respectful,’’ Dillon said. “It’s not like a pump-you-up kind of push because he knows I’m already motivated. I think that’s where, when we first started, that’s where he thought he’d have to motivate me, but then he quickly learned I’m really motivated in everything I do.’’

TIME TO GO

Even as Richard Childress Racing seeks to move forward, Ryan Newman notes that it needs to look behind, if only for guidance.

“I think Richard Childress will sit here and tell you right now that last year we learned a lot of what not to do,’’ Newman said. “If you can take the things that you learned not to do and not making the mistake of doing them again and correct the things that you have done wrong than you should be a stronger team the following year.’’

The time is now to prove it.

“We’ve got to win races,’’ Menard said. “When Richard is mad it’s not a good day. When he is, happy things go well. We are going to do our best to make him happy.”

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Daytona 500 starting lineup is set

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 23:  Cars race during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Can-Am Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 23, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Daytona 500 field is set after Thursday night’s Duels at Daytona International Speedway.

Chase Elliott earned the pole last weekend in single-car qualifying. Dale Earnhardt Jr. starts second.

Jamie McMurray earned the third starting spot based on his runner-up finish in the first Duel on Thursday. Denny Hamlin earned the fourth starting spot based on his win in the second Duel Thursday.

The cars of Martin Truex Jr., AJ Allmendinger and Chris Buescher will start at the rear of the field because each failed inspection after the qualifying races. All failed minimum heights.

Also, Jimmie Johnson, Paul Menard and Ryan Blaney will start at the rear of the field because they went to backup cars after incidents in their qualifying races.

Click here for Daytona 500 starting lineup