Long: The kids are coming and focused on a Daytona 500 trophy

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The fissure between veteran and younger drivers, which bubbled in the offseason over the sport’s marketing, has moved to the track and set up a juicy storyline for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Four days after veteran driver Brad Keselowski won the Clash, youngsters Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott won their qualifying races.

That Elliott and Blaney each won a restrictor-plate race — where cunning, courage and calm are often traits exhibited by older drivers — shows that these 20-somethings are as advanced as any generation and ready to challenge the status quo more consistently.

“I think from the time that Ryan started, he’s been good on the superspeedways and done a good job,’’ said former champion Kevin Harvick, who finished second to Elliott in the second Duel. “(Blaney and Elliott) are different because they have such a knack and have watched so many of these races. It’s not like they were racing on a computer, came through a different form of racing, whatever the case may be. Those guys had dads that were pretty darn good, … heard the lingo, heard the talk, watched the action on the racetrack. 

“They’ve seen as much of the progression of how all this works as I have. They may not have been in a car, but they’ve watched and learned. I don’t think the progression has been very good because they started good.’’

There actually has been a level of progression. Elliott recalls with disdain how he lost control of his car 20 laps into the Daytona 500 his rookie year in 2016 and finished 37th after starting on the pole.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson said the change took place after that race.

“Since that point, I feel like really not even the next year, but really the next race at Talladega, he and I made leaps and bounds in understanding what he wants in the car to race,’’ Gustafson said. “Ultimately when we gave him what he wants to race, he was pretty instantly very, very competitive. I think we got 90 percent of it right away, then he’s just continued to work on it and work on it and work on it. We continuously try to evolve.

“You want to get a car that is ultimately very fast, but drives well. We’ve continued to evolve that. He’s continued to evolve his craft. I think we’re getting better and better and better.’’

They’ve worked so well together that Elliott was leading late in last year’s Daytona 500 before his emptying fuel cell caused his engine to belch momentarily and that was enough to end his chances.

Last year was a bummer,’’ Elliott said. Unfortunately the beginning of many bummers throughout the season.  I hope that’s not the trend this year. I hope tonight is more the trend.’’

Former champion Kyle Busch, who finished fifth to Elliott in the second qualifying race, said Elliott ran a smart race in scoring his second consecutive Duel victory.

“Chase did a good job getting to the front,’’ Busch said. “(Denny Hamlin) was leading and (Elliott) was kind of pressuring him in some areas and doing some things to get up to the lead and once he got up there, he was able to hold on to it.’’

Blaney was joined by his Penske teammates Joey Logano and Keselowski in the first qualifying race. Penske again dominated. While Keselowski led the most laps in the Clash, Logano led the most laps Thursday night in their race. This time Blaney got by even if it wasn’t as he planned.

“That’s the same spot I made the move in the Clash and it didn’t work,’’ Blaney said. “Almost didn’t work tonight. I was coming with such a head of steam, I had to. Brad laid back so much from whoever was behind him, I kind of laid back to Brad off of four because I didn’t want them to get a huge run. It just propelled me so fast to Joey, I had to turn left or I would have ran him over.

“I didn’t really want to make my move right there because it didn’t work. It really shouldn’t have worked. I was trying to plot where to do the move better. I was thinking about that all week after it didn’t work in the Clash. That was not the spot I wanted to do it. I was coming with such a head of steam, I had to turn left or run (Logano) over.’’

Blaney has shown he’s willing to be aggressive and has a fast enough car to do so. That can be a combination that is hard to beat.

It was Thursday for him and Elliott.

Now, they have to make the right decisions for the 500 and put themselves in the right place in the final laps while trying to fend off many others. 

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Saturday schedule for Cup at Sonoma, Trucks at Gateway

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Cup cars are only on the track for qualifying today at Sonoma Raceway, and Camping Work Truck teams will qualify and race at Gateway Motorsports Park.

Johnny Sauter has won three of the last five Truck races. Brett Moffitt won last weekend’s Truck race at Iowa.

Here’s today’s schedule at both tracks:

(ALL TIMES ARE EASTERN)

At SONOMA RACEWAY

10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. — Cup garage open

2:45 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-vehicle/two rounds (FS1, Performance Racing Network)

4:30 p.m. — K&N Pro Series West race; 64 laps, 127.36 miles (airs at 6 p.m. ET June 28 on NBCSN)

At GATEWAY MOTORSPORTS PARK

11 a.m. — Truck garage opens

Noon – 1 p.m. — Final Truck practice (No TV)

5:45 p.m. — Truck qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (airs from 7-8 p.m. on FS1)

7 p.m. — Driver/crew chief meeting

8 p.m. — Driver introductions

8:30 p.m. — Villa Lighting delivers the Eaton 200; 160 laps/200 miles (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

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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