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Connection between Erik Jones and Chris Gabehart was years in the making

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The Erik Jones-Chris Gabehart relationship didn’t start with a January 8 press release from Joe Gibbs Racing.

Although paired together for Jones’ rookie Xfinity Series season, the two, in fact, go way back. To October 2012.

Jones was given what turned out to be the start of his big break. A mutual friend suggested to Gabehart, who was working with Kyle Busch at the time, to let Jones shake down Busch’s Late Model for the All American 400 at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee. Busch would need an extra hand since he was going to be traveling from Talladega Superspeedway.

“Of course Kyle loves racing Late Models and wants to win all the big ones, and that’s one he hadn’t won yet,” Gabehart recalled Wednesday during a teleconference ahead of the Xfinity Series championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “But we had to be in Talladega. We were knocked out of the Chase, so we needed somebody to practice the car, and we had actually went through a few different names, names I think you all would probably know, and finally got to Erik as one who could do it and be willing to do it.”

Jones was 16 years old and had driven in very few Late Model races. He had also never been to Nashville before. Combine all that with getting behind the wheel of one of Busch’s racecars and Gabehart acknowledges the pressure that was put on Jones. But Gabehart easily remembers how fast Jones was and how well he dialed the car in.

“Just handled himself great,” Gabehart said. “Truthfully, that weekend while he didn’t get to race, was really the building block for the Snowball Derby. It allowed Erik and Kyle to get to know each other.”

Said Jones: “That was a cool experience for me. I remember going down there, and they gave me per diem, and I was like, ‘Man, this is pretty cool. I feel like I’m getting paid to drive a racecar.’ So that was a pretty neat experience and definitely one that I think played into getting my opportunity over at KBM.”

That’s where the Snowball Derby, run in December, comes in. Jones, in family-owned equipment, beat Busch in the most prestigious Late Model race in the country. Between that and the Nashville test, it appeared to be the tipping point for Busch in giving Jones a shot in NASCAR equipment.

“Erik did such a good job for us (in Nashville) that when we got to the Snowball Derby and Erik put up such a battle, David kind of beating Goliath there with 20 to go in a shootout, the foundation was already laid, and at that point Kyle was like, wow, this kid has got something,” Gabehart said.

Jones quickly rose through the Camping World Truck Series, winning four times in the 17 races he ran between 2013-14. In 2015, running full-time, Jones won three more times and took home the championship.

His move into the Xfinity Series resulted in a reunion with Gabehart, who was moved from a race engineer role in the Sprint Cup Series, to overseeing the No. 20 team. Jones and Gabehart have earned eight poles, led 624 laps, and won four races.

Saturday, they will be one of four teams competing for the championship at Homestead. Something that seems amazing to Gabehart when looking at how the two first met and how far Jones has come.

“It was really neat to be a part of all of that,” Gabehart said of 2012. “I think without any one of those little things going the way they did, there’s a good chance Erik Jones wouldn’t be where he is today, and that’s pretty special to be a part of.”

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Kurt Busch fastest in final Cup practice at Sonoma

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Kurt Busch posted the fastest single lap in the final practice for the Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway with a speed of 94.061 mph.

He beat second-place Denny Hamlin (94.012 mph) by .040 seconds.

Martin Truex Jr. (93.718) had the third fastest lap, but the team will have some work to do before Saturday’s qualification. With nine minutes remaining on the clock, he ran into the back of Bubba Wallace in the esses and did significant damage to his nose. Wallace landed 34th on the chart with a speed of 91.641 mph.

Jamie McMurray (93.549) and Kevin Harvick (93.441) rounded out the top five.

Harvick (91.468) had the quickest 10-lap average – leading a sweep of the top three by Stewart Haas Racing. Busch was second quickest at 91.452 mph with Clint Bowyer third quick at 91.443 mph.

William Byron broke an axle seal in final practice, but the team was able to get him back on track with 24 minutes remaining in the session. His speed of 92.279 mph was 25th fastest.

Click here for the full report from final practice.

Friday Truck Series practice report from Gateway

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Second practice

Last week’s winner, Brett Moffitt topped the speed chart in Friday evening’s practice session for the Eaton 200 with a speed of 137.191 mph.

He beat second-place Myatt Snider (136.658 mph) by .128 seconds.

Johnny Sauter (136.608), Riley Herbst (136.355), and Ben Rhodes (136.219) round out the top five.

Herbst is making his Truck Series debut this week.

Also making his Truck debut is Zane Smith, who posted a lap of 136.120 mph to land sixth on the chart.

Christian Eckes (135.906) failed to back up his series-leading speed from the first practice session and was only ninth fastest, but he had the quickest 10-lap average of 135.039 mph.

Click here for complete results from practice 2.

First practice

Rain canceled the practice session at Gateway that was scheduled to run from 3:35 – 4:25 p.m. Eastern time.

When they finally got on track, Eckes posted the fastest single lap in the first practice session with a speed of 134.360 mph. He is making his Truck series debut this week.

Eckes’ speed was .009 seconds faster than Noah Gragon (134.324), who landed second on the speed chart.

Rhodes (134.120), Moffitt (133.817) and Matt Crafton (133.706) rounded out the top five.

Rhodes had the quickest 10-lap average of 133.466 mph.

With the first practice canceled at Gateway, NASCAR added a final practice session scheduled for Noon – 1 p.m.

Click here for complete results from practice one.

Denny Hamlin offers advice on how to deal with critics on social media

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Denny Hamlin, who has been fined by NASCAR for comments on Twitter, and was vocal toward critics after this year’s Daytona 500, says he’s found peace on how to deal with those on social media who don’t agree with him.

“I’ve been very good this year about not replying to mean people, and you all should do the same,’’ Hamlin said Friday at Sonoma Raceway.

“I’m making a (request) right now to every driver, every team owner, every NASCAR executive and every media member, stop replying to people who make nonsense comments. They have 16 followers. Don’t give them your 100,000. Do not give them your 100,000 as their stage. No one will ever see their comment, just brush it by, talk about the positives and I’m not a positive person.”

Asked how does one ignore such divisive comments, Hamlin said: “You just scroll by it. Forget it. That person doesn’t exit. They’re an admirer that has lost their way.’’

Hamlin has been better at doing so since the Daytona 500. He faced negative reaction on social media to the contact he and Bubba Wallace had at the end of the Daytona 500.

They engaged in a brief shouting match in the garage area after Hamlin learned that Wallace had taken a dig at him on national TV about a recent comment about drivers using Adderall.

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Clint Bowyer leads opening Cup practice at Sonoma

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Clint Bowyer was the fastest in the first of two Cup practices Friday at Sonoma Raceway.

Bowyer, the winner of the most recent Cup race two weeks ago at Michigan, posted a lap of 93.590 mph. He was followed by Ryan Blaney (93.546 mph), Joey Logano (93.172), Jamie McMurray (93.049) and Daniel Suarez (92.746).

Sixth was Jimmie Johnson (92.661). He was followed by Michael McDowell (92.650), Martin Truex Jr. (92.614), AJ Allmendinger (92.596) and Ryan Newman (92.595).

Click here for full practice report

Final Cup practice will be from 5:40 – 6:55 p.m. ET. Qualifying will take place Saturday.

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