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Ryan Blaney leads historic day for Team Penske in Las Vegas

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Team Penske has been fielding entries in the Cup Series off and on since 1972 and on Sunday it still found something new to accomplish.

The Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway ended with three Team Penske cars in the top 10 for the first time.

The Fords of Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano finished fifth-sixth-seventh in the race after spending most of the day in the top 10.

This is Penske’s first year fielding three full-time cars since 2010.

The day was made better by Wood Brothers Racing’s Paul Menard finishing ninth. The Wood Brothers have a technical alliance with Team Penske.

Blaney, who started from his third Cup pole and his first with Penske, led only the first lap before eventual race winner Kevin Harvick took the lead.

Blaney’s top five is his first with Penske in five starts (he made his first two Cup starts with Penske in 2014).

“I thought it was a solid day for us,” Blaney said. “We had a pretty decent Ford all day. The first run we weren’t great and we got better. I thought our strongest run was right before the last green flag pit stops. We lost a little speed the last run there. Overall it was a good weekend for us. That is what we need to do, just have good, consistent weekends like that.”

Logano was the only other Penske driver to lead the race. He led twice for 25 laps. He took the lead the second time early in the final stage following a caution on Lap 177. When the field came to the pits, Logano was only driver to take two tires.

The No. 22 took the lead from Martin Truex Jr. on the restart. Truex had stayed out under the caution.

Logano led 12 laps before Harvick reclaimed the point position.

“We were better than seventh,” Logano said. “We were the only car that took two (tires) and the run went really long and we lost a lot of track position there as we fell back on the two tires. We never got a caution to kind of reset and get those spots back. We faded back to seventh, a little further back even, but were able to get a couple spots back. Overall we have been solid with the Pennzoil Ford all season.”

With his result, Logano is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in the first three races of the season. He trails Harvick by three points in the standings.

It’s a good start for a team that missed the playoffs last year after Logano’s only win was disqualified for failing post-race inspection.

“We have okay speed in the car,” Logano said. “We aren’t anywhere close to (Harvick), but we are competitive with the rest. We will keep working toward that. … We are running hard and running strong right now. We just have to find a bit more to be able to beat Kevin.”

Keselowski earned his second top 10 of the year after placing second last week at Atlanta.

“We had really good short-run speed, and I thought we would be really good on the long runs today, but it turned out we were really good on the short runs,” he said. “That wasn’t at all what I was expecting. The short-run speed was really strong, but I just couldn’t get anywhere to capitalize on it.”

Las Vegas has proven to be kind to Team Penske’s drivers over the last few years.

Blaney earned his third consecutive top-10 at the 1.5-mile track. Keselowski has six top 10s in a row and Logano has five in a row.

Menard, in his first season with the Wood Brothers after replacing Blaney, earned his fourth top 10 at the track, but his first since 2014. He has two top 10s in the first three races of the year. He earned three in each of his last two seasons with Richard Childress Racing.

NASCAR America: Better equipment, skilled drivers changed road racing

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The Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway is the first of three road course races on the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series calendar and the preparation involved in setting up these cars is much greater today than it has been in the past, according to NASCAR America analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Jarrett.

“I think the same emphasis is put in those two road course races and the cars that will be in those races,” Earnhardt said. “And now the Roval that will be at Charlotte – being a very important race in the playoffs – these road course racers are even more important.”

Man and machine need to be equal to the challenge.

“Not only is the emphasis more on the drivers to prepare and learn how to become road course racers, but there is a lot more emphasis on the cars too,” Earnhardt said. “All the cars are so much more similar and there is a lot more dedication to preparing the cars for these particular races. It’s almost like there is as much effort into putting a good road course car on the track as there is speedway cars – like Daytona and Talladega cars.”

Even the best driver cannot compete in equipment that is not up to the challenge and it took some outside expertise to raise NASCAR to the level of other marquee road racing series mechanically. Car owners like Jack Roush and road ringers like Boris Said contributed to the evolution of the racing discipline.

“The cars are so much better now than when we started,” Dale Jarrett said. “Whenever I got started in the Cup series fulltime in ’87, there were a couple of good road racers – and I think of Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace … but Jack Roush brought something totally new into the sport a little later in the 80s and early 90s. … Their equipment was a little bit better because they understood road racing a little more. Now everybody has all that.”

Jarrett recalled what he believes might be one of the biggest upsets of his career. He won the pole for the 2001 Global Crossing at the Glen because he received a tip from Said, who told him he was not getting deep enough into the corners because his brakes were not good enough.

“You talk about road course ringers: Boris Said and Ron Fellows and some other guys coming in,” Jarrett said. “One of the things that helped them, they were better because they did it all the time, but they also would tell the teams they were going to drive for, ‘hey, there’s a lot better braking and other things out there that you can do.’ They came in and they had better equipment, which made them look even that much better than what we were.”

For more, watch the video above.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Jarrett preview upcoming races

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with Dale Earnhardt Jr. making his weekly appearance on the show.

Krista Voda hosts with Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett from the Big Oak Table in Charlotte.

On today’s show:

· Not long ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. bragged about his ability to remember who he’s beaten for wins in past races. In this episode, we’ll test his memory in a trivia game called “Who Did Junior Pass For The Win?” We’ll be taking your questions for Junior throughout the show. Just send it on social media with the hashtag #Wednesdale.

· Sonoma begins a critical summer stretch for the Monster Energy Cup Series. With Chicagoland, Daytona, Kentucky and New Hampshire on the horizon, teams will be challenged and playoff hopes will rise and fall. Dale Jr. & Dale Jarrett preview the upcoming races.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Three Cup drivers will reach career start milestones at Sonoma

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Three Cup drivers will reach career start milestones when the series visits Sonoma Raceway this weekend.

Ryan Newman leads the way with his 600th Cup start.

The Richard Childress Racing driver will become the 28th driver to reach the mark. His first start came on Nov. 5, 2000 at ISM Raceway with Team Penske.

Newman is one of four remaining active Cup drivers, including Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Derrike Cope, who competed against Dale Earnhardt in a Cup points race. Only Newman and Busch compete full-time.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin will make his 450th start. He will become the 52nd driver to reach that mark.

Hamlin’s first start came on Oct. 9, 2005 at Kansas Speedway. All of his starts have been with JGR.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will make his 200th career start. He will be the 132nd driver to reach that mark.

Stenhouse’s first start came in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 with Wood Brothers Racing when he substituted for Trevor Bayne, who was out due to illness. Every other start has been with Roush Fenway Racing.

The last race at Michigan International Speedway saw AJ Allmendinger make his 350th Cup start. 71 drivers have reached that mark.

How much does starting position matter at Sonoma?

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Do you need to qualify on the pole, the front row or the even the top five to better your chances of winning a NASCAR race?

On a typical race weekend one would think that’s the case. Through 15 races this season, the winner has started in the top five eight times. Only four winners started 10th or worse.

But this isn’t a typical race weekend as the Cup Series heads to Sonoma Raceway for its first road course race of the season.

The series has held 29 races at the road course since 1989. In those 29 races, the winner started from the pole five times (17.2 percent).

That makes it the most prolific starting position at the track in terms of wins.

But a winner hasn’t come from the pole since 2004 when Jeff Gordon did it for a track-best third time.

The driver starting second has won three times, the last occurring in 2010 with Jimmie Johnson. Since that race, only one Sonoma winner – Carl Edwards (fourth) in 2014 – has started in the top five.

In the 13 races since Gordon last won from the pole, the race winner started in the top five three times.

The last three races saw the winner start 11th (Kyle Busch), 10th (Tony Stewart) and 12th (Kevin Harvick).

In contrast, the 14 races from 1992-2005 saw every race winner came from inside the top 10 and 11 from the top five.

What’s changed? Road course racing became much more aggressive with the transition to double fire restarts in 2009. The introduction of stage racing last year added another wrinkle to a type of racing that already saw aggressive pit strategy.

But Sonoma isn’t too kind to drivers starting in the back half of the field.

The deepest in the field that a race winner has started is 32nd, when Juan Pablo Montoya won in 2007. Only one other time has the winner come from outside the top 15, when Kyle Busch started 30th and won in 2008.