What drivers said after Phoenix playoff race

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Here’s what drivers had to say after the Can-Am 500 at Phoenix Raceway.

Matt Kenseth – Winner: “It couldn’t be any sweeter. I just don’t know how else to explain it, you know? You always feel like you can get the job done. If you’ve got a big enough sample size of numbers, numbers don’t really lie. So we needed to go out and get the job done and get us a win and we were able to do that today. So we’ve got one more race left and, like I said, great way to go out.”

Chase Elliott – Finished second: “Our car was really good on the short run after those cautions and the rubber got picked up. As I went, I just got tighter and tighter and couldn’t keep it turning and couldn’t roll the middle like I needed to.  I felt like I might have had enough to keep him back there if I hit all my marks and got really tight off (Turn) 2 and made it one lap and basically gave away all my gap and once he got there it was obviously hard to hold him off.  Man, it’s such a bummer to be so freaking close again. Had a shot to go race for a championship next week, so we fought as hard as we could today.  I told my guys a minute ago, at some point we will figure out how to close or I will figure out how to close and we can have some great opportunities down the road, I hope.”

Martin Truex Jr. – Finished third: “Definitely excited about the position we’re in, to go to Homestead.  Feel like we’ve got a lot of momentum, we’ve got a lot of consistency in our team, and doing all the right things right now.  Excited for Homestead, and hopefully go down there and get our first championship.  Ready to go.”

Erik Jones – Finished fourth: “A good day for us. The 5-hour ENERGY Camry was good. Definitely had the speed to run up front and contend for the win … I just didn’t really execute 100 percent on the last restart to really give myself the shot I needed. Kind of a bummer, but overall really strong day for us – another day we needed. It had been a minute since we had really ran in the top-five competitively and had a shot and that is what we did today. Nice to get back on track. Nice momentum for next week and hopefully being able to close the season out with a win.”

Kevin Harvick – Finished fifth: On getting a chance to race for title: “It means a lot, especially this year switching everything from our manufacturer to Ford and just seeing the steady climb of performance and peaking as the playoffs started and running good on really every race track that we’ve been to and this has by far been our best round — all three top fives and a win.  It’s the right time of the year to be peaking.  I feel really good about our mile-and-a-half program. Homestead has been a great race track for us through the years and hopefully we can go down there and contend.  I think, for us, you’re really happy with where you are just for the fact that I think as a company we know what we went through and kind of playing on house money at this point, so we’re gonna go down there and wing it and see what happens.”

Jamie McMurray – Finished sixth:  “We were really good about three quarters of the way through the race.  There was one kind of bad run there and the way the sequence of tire strategies worked, we didn’t quite have enough track position to stay out.  So, we had to pit and I think we did pretty good to hang on with the two tires that we had.   We had a really fast car and it’s really hard to pass here and we passed quite a few cars today, so I am really proud of our Cessna Chevrolet SS team.”

Kyle Busch – Finished seventh: “Today was not the prettiest of efforts on behalf of the 18 M&M’s Caramel team, but overall we fought through it and did a good job of being able to get back in the pack, come back up through and salvage a decent day.  Unfortunately for last week, we didn’t have luck on our side, we had two flat tires while under caution, and that set us behind, and of course today we just kind of weren’t all that great, so we were kind of behind today, as well, too.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Finished eighth:  “I’m real happy with that after starting last from my mistake in qualifying.  We kept working on our car.  It was really good on long runs and then we actually got it pretty decent on the short run as well.  It was a really good day for our guys and look forward to trying to carry this momentum into Homestead and try to finish 11th in points.”

Aric Almirola – Finished ninth: “It was a great run for us, a top 10.  I’m really proud of all the effort here to close out the season with these guys here on the 43 team.  It’s Veteran’s Day weekend and pretty cool to get the U.S. Air Force a top 10.  I’m proud of everybody and we’ve got one more to go.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Finished 10th: “So happy for Matt (Kenseth).  Me and him kind of going out at the same time.  I’m so happy for him to be able to win and have some joy in his life and celebrate, but this place has been really good to me and we worked really hard today trying to get our car better and we made some improvements, but we still don’t have the kind of speed that we wish we had.  We really wore ourselves out trying to figure it out.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 11th: “I wish we could have had some more of these throughout the season.  When you are running good like that you get to learn a lot more.  We had a couple of mistakes that might have kept us from running even better than what we ended up.  But, proud of our effort.  I learned a lot about what it takes to race good here in the Monster Energy Cup Series.  I feel like all-in-all it was a great finish, but I feel like I learned more than what this finish is going to show.  Excited to keep going and it is great momentum going into the last race of the year.”

Austin Dillon – Finished 14th: “We had a really fast Realtree Chevrolet today. We struggled with a tight-handling condition on the front end, but (crew chief) Justin Alexander and everyone on the team did a good job making adjustments. We made an unscheduled pit-stop for a flat left-rear tire during a caution and ended up losing a little bit of track position. Later in the race, we ended up with a little bit of damage during a late-race restart that got pretty crazy and I think it hurt us a little bit. We ended up finishing 14th. Still, a pretty good day at Phoenix Raceway.”

Paul Menard – Finished 15th: “We had a strong No. 27 Duracell/Menards Chevrolet on the long runs today, but it took a while for it to fire off on the initial start. The guys on pit road did a great job gaining spots throughout the day. We got hit from behind and suffered some damage to the nose when the field stacked up on that late-race restart, and that hurt the handling of the car over the final run. We still came out of here with a top-15 finish and we will go to Homestead and try to end the season on a high note.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished 16th: “We overcame a lot of obstacles and jumped a lot of hurdles today. I am glad I don’t have to relive this day, that is for sure. I am just looking forward to going to Homestead. This feels a little bit like Christmas. Sometimes you need a little luck on your side. Today we had that. It wasn’t by any means where we wanted to run. We wanted to run up front and have a shot for the win. That wasn’t in the cards. We tried to run the smartest race we could and survive and it ended up paying off in the end.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished 17th: “We just had no tires.  We were debating whether to pit or not there and just didn’t, so that made us fall back.  That stinks.  I thought we could have stayed up and you never know what could have happened, but we just never had the car all day to compete up front.  We did a good job on restarts.  I thought we were decent on restarts all day.  We were able to start up towards the front and just didn’t work out for us.  We still have one more race to go with the Wood Brothers group, so hopefully we can go and have a good run at Miami.”

Ryan Newman – Finished 20th: “We had one hell of a Cat MineStar Chevy today. We could have won this thing again. The pit crew did a great job when we needed, and it was just a lot of fun out there. There is not much more that I could have done on that restart. We just got rear ended and had to pit. We went back out there and out ran the leader with fast lap times. I told Richard Childress we have a lot to be proud of. We struggled all weekend and to go out on race day and run with cars this capable of winning, eventually they will win. Good job again to my entire team.”

Denny Hamlin – Finished 35th: “Each person had their own opinion of how they do things and it just proved to the people that thought I was a bad guy that he would do the exact same thing in the same circumstances, so, I mean, you know, it’s just part of racing. I got into him and he chose to retaliate, so I’m in the garage and that’s the way it is. We did a great job all day. This is the best car I’ve had in a very long time. We just got behind on the pit stops and then that just gave those guys an opportunity to get close.”

Chris Buescher – Finished 37th: “These cars have come a long way and really appreciate all the innovation that goes into that.  I’ve had more than I want for impacts this year.  On that note, it’s fine, our Clorox Chevrolet was okay.  We were getting better through the race.  We got a little bit of a long (brake) pedal there and I think we broke a rotor or something along those lines.  The hood basically blew a part, thought it might have been a tire, but no brakes at that point.  Not fun, not how we wanted to end our day.  We were fighting back.  It wasn’t going to be a great day, but we were making the best of it.”

Trevor Bayne  – Finished 38th: “I just lost right-front there off of Turn 4.  I’ve done that in an Xfinity car before and it doesn’t feel good.  That wall gets pretty head-on once you’re coming off like that and I was just running hard trying to stay in the free pass and trying to catch Denny (Hamlin) and the 19 (Daniel Suarez) and those guys so we could get back to being one down. The bead just got hot and blew. We had a little damage early on when they checked up and knocked the bead fan off, so that cooling wasn’t getting there.  The car got really tight for about three laps and we were in our pit window, we were gonna be coming in a couple laps and it just didn’t hang on.  It was a really hard hit. That’s probably one of the harder frontal impacts I’ve had, but I feel fine and ready to go.”

Jimmie Johnson – finished 39th: “I’m disappointed for sure. The last couple of months we’ve been staying alive and at this stage with the Round of 8 and then the Round of 4, you can’t just stay alive. You’ve got to be hitting on all cylinders and we just haven’t been there, unfortunately. Again, I’m very thankful for all the hard work that’s gone into this and all the efforts from (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) and the team, but we just can’t get there right now. We’ll try again next weekend and then do some good changes over the off-season and come back next year and be ready to go.”

Kyle Larson – finished 40th: “I think I was passing a lap earlier and when I lifted, I heard it start to blow up. I was hoping it wasn’t. But, by the time I got back to the gas I knew it was done. It’s just unfortunate to have four DNF’s in a row; two from engines and then two from wrecks. It’s a crappy way to end the season. I thought I had, by far, the best car here today, so I was really happy about that. The Refresh Your Car! Chevrolet was definitely the best car I’ve had at Phoenix. So, I’m happy about that. I just hate that we don’t really get a shot to race for the win.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.