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New year, new teams bring improvement for Matt Tifft, Brandon Jones

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It took until March 9 for Matt Tifft to realize it wasn’t 2017 anymore.

During a press conference at ISM Raceway, Tifft was not introduced as the driver of the No. 19 Toyota owned by Joe Gibbs Racing.

That honor went to the driver sitting to his left – Brandon Jones.

“I was like, ‘Oh wait, that’s not me,’” Tifft said that day.

On race days in the Xfinity Series, Tifft now pilots Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 Chevrolet.

The end of the 2017 season and resulting offseason saw arguably the silliest of “Silly Seasons” in recent NASCAR history.

Drivers retired, got promotions, were forced to unceremoniously retire and in a few cases, swapped teams.

The last option was the case for Tifft and Jones.

Brandon Jones during the Xfinity race weekend at ISM Raceway (Getty Images).

A STEP BACK

Things did not go well last year for either driver.

Specifically Jones.

The 21-year-old driver calls his last 33 races with RCR “bizarre” and “confusing.”

It started with Jones on the pole for the season-opener at Daytona.

It ended with Jones 16th in the standings (he was 10th in 2016). He recorded no top fives, three top 10s and seven DNFs.

“It was definitely rough time, man,” Jones says. “It was just confusing because we had guys on the team and stuff that were top-of-the line guys and we put this team together and we were honestly having so much fun as a team that it almost took away from having bad luck and bad runs and stuff.”

Almost.

“I had everything possible except for a blown motor that could have gone wrong,” Jones says. “It was just bizarre. Couldn’t ever catch a break. We kind of put that behind ourselves this year. Wanted to try and start fresh whenever I made the move to JGR.”

WELCOME TO WELCOME

In the middle of 2017, Tifft had a conversation with Ben Kennedy, then one of the drivers rotating in and out of RCR’s No. 2 car.

Kennedy brought up his crew chief, Randall Burnett.

“I just lean on this guy because he’s got to much experience,” Kennedy said. Burnett was in his first season as an Xfinity crew chief. In 2016, he was crew chief for AJ Allmendinger in Cup after 10 years as a Chip Ganassi Racing engineer.

“That was way before I knew I was going to RCR,” Tifft told NBC Sports.

Matt Tifft drives the No. 2 Dollar Shave Club Chevrolet  at ISM Raceway on March 9. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

In October, the 21-year-old driver was announced as moving to RCR after one full-time season with JGR.

While his rotating cast of teammates won 12 of 33 races in 2017, Tifft came up empty. He earned just two top fives, at Mid-Ohio and Road America, and 13 top 10s.

Even without a win Tifft made the playoffs, where he placed in the top 10 in seven of the eight races. But was eliminated after the second round.

“I felt like we were competitive in the playoffs. That’s the time there I felt like we were starting to get there. But it took that long,” Tifft says. “I think I just had a hard time putting the races together and dealing with pressure and the ups and downs. I don’t think I knew exactly how to handle it. I think part of it was I didn’t know how to prepare for it, too.”

Tifft eventually found himself eating lunch at “one of the few restaurants” in Welcome, North Carolina, where RCR is headquartered.

With him was Burnett, who he had found out that day would be his crew chief in 2018.

“I felt like there was just a really good connection there as far as personalities and where he was at,” Tifft says. “This deal is so stressful that you’ve got to be able to have that trust in a relationship with your crew chief. Jimmie Johnson talks about it all the time. It really is a relationship. You’ve got to have that.”

Early on Tifft established a clear understanding with his car chief, Cam Strader.

“He said straight up, ‘Hey, we’re going to bust our tails to make sure that we’re bringing the best stuff for you but you make sure you focus on what you need to do, not only from a driver side of things, but also from a promotional side of things.,’” Tifft says. “If we’re out doing events and stuff and I can’t be at the shop that one day they understand because I want to make it clear to them if I’m not in the shop I’m doing something that’s productive for our race team.”

Blake Koch has a new role as a mentor to Matt Tifft. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

COACH KOCH

Tifft is keeping his side of the deal with Strader.

Where race preparation was a weakness last season, Tifft isn’t just relying on resources provided by RCR to improve.

He’s getting a little help from “the hardest working” guy he knows in the garage – Blake Koch.

While Tifft and Jones landed safely during “Silly Season,” Koch found himself without a ride at the end of 2017, replaced at Kaulig Racing by Ryan Truex.

Now, through a mutual connection who manages drivers, he’s Tifft’s unofficial driver coach.

“It wasn’t like I was in a dire situation where I needed somebody like that,” Tifft says. “But I was just thinking back to when you start racing in go karts and late models and all that stuff, there’s usually a strong mentor piece or someone that’s looking out for you. I felt like I was going to have a very strong foundation there this year at RCR with having (Daniel) Hemric as a teammate and whoever’s rotating through the 3 car is going to be really strong I felt like. Anything I could do to try to step up my game and keep on accelerating that learning curve to where I can make our organization better by being a better teammate, just trying to give the best effort I could.”

Koch, who has 213 Xfinity starts since 2009, helps Tifft with his workouts, weekend prep and debriefs him after the race weekend.

“He’s very particular about every single thing I’m doing,” Tifft says. “From first lap on practice to coming up to speed in qualifying, your lines and techniques. … I think a lot of the fundamental stuff that you can improve on as a driver was something I felt I needed to get better at last year and I felt like I made that jump in the playoffs.”

Koch is even picky about “garage flow,” an effort to declutter Tifft’s mind at a track

“When you show up to a race track and you get in your car you shouldn’t have to wonder how the heck you get on the race track,” Koch says. “When you get to the race track, the only thing you should have to think about is hitting your marks and running in a perfect line and focusing on your task at hand, not the other small details that are just cluttering your mind.”

What’s been Koch’s emphasis through the first few weeks of their partnership?

Tifft points to being more efficient in passing.

For Koch, it’s all about restarts

“That was the main thing we focused on going into the year, let’s be the best at restarts,” Koch says. “I think five races in he’s had better restarts than he had in the entire year last year and that’s pretty important in our series right now with the stages, with track position being so important. I would say that’s the No. 1 improvement.”

Brandon Jones drives the No.19 Juniper Toyota, during the NASCAR Xfinity Series DC Solar 200 at ISM Raceway on March 10. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

SIMULATOR DAYS

There’s not that much different in terms of resources when it comes to teams like RCR and JGR.

But Jones has found there’s a difference in how they’re used.

No more so than when it comes to simulator time.

Every Tuesday, he and teammate Christopher Bell spend the day in Toyota Racing Development’s simulator. Bell takes the morning shift and Jones takes over in the afternoon.

“We’re there and talking to each other and bouncing stuff off each other, what’s working and what didn’t,” Jones says. “That’s been a really big help for me this year. There were times last year where I was able to run a little bit on the simulator, but it wasn’t every single week and it wasn’t a set date. That’s been one of the things that’s been really cool about going to Toyota this year is just having a set date for their simulator every single week.”

Also, there’s data. So much data. The information proved to Jones that simply having better cars wasn’t the only reason the field was left chasing JGR the last few years.

“I think they were available to me at RCR, either I didn’t know to ask for it was they didn’t cram it down my throat kind of deal,” says Jones. “I get everything possible I can for a driver.”

Some of that info comes straight from the mouths of JGR’s Cup drivers.

“Even when it comes to talking to Kyle Busch or one of those guys on how they do pit stops, ‘Man, I do it way differently, but your way is more effective, so I’m going to work on doing it that way.’” Jones says. “It’s hard to know how to do all that stuff without ever being taught it. At the end of the day, some of it’s pretty obvious when they show it to you, but you would have never thought of doing stuff like that without seeing it.”

BACK ON TRACK

Whether it’s data, equipment or luck, Tifft and Jones’ first five races of 2018 are a marked improvement from last year.

Following Saturday’s race at Auto Club Speedway, Jones has two top 10s and he’s finished outside the top 15 once.

Last year, he didn’t have a top 10 until race 13. He’s also catching breaks he didn’t in 2017.

At Atlanta, he cut a tire and brushed the wall, but narrowly avoided being rammed by cars as he dove to pit road. He finished 17th.

At Phoenix, Jones “saw my life flash before my eyes” when he avoided a lapped car on the backstretch that didn’t have power steering. He placed 11th.

In Fontana, after a harmless spin in practice, he kept from wrecking with Kaz Grala at the checkered flag. He finished 13th.

“Just about everywhere we were pretty quick,” Jones says. “We’re very close. I think by the end of the year, we’re going to be very, very close if not right there with them. … We’ve got the long-run speed figured out. It’s more just trying to figure out how to get short-run speed out of me and how to qualify just a little better.”

Tifft has seen improvement every week. After finishing 19th at Daytona, he had finishes of 12th, 11th, seventh and then eighth in Fontana after starting 20th.

His first consecutive top 10s last year weren’t until races 11 and 12.

Even though they’ve swapped teams, Tifft doesn’t see Jones as his head-to-head competition, at least not yet.

“To be focused on one car and beating them is kind of stupid unless you’re in the Dash 4 Cash or the playoffs,” Tifft says. “It’s too early in the year to say we need to go out and beat the 19 car. You’d just drive yourself crazy for no reason.”

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Sunday Cup race at Michigan: Start time, TV channel, lineup

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The Cup Series completes its weekend doubleheader with Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway.

Kevin Harvick seeks to sweep the weekend after his victory Saturday. Michigan native Brad Keselowski, who finished second on Saturday, continues in search of his first career Cup win at his home track.

The top-20 finishers from Saturday’s race will be inverted for the start of the Sunday Cup race at Michigan. That puts Chris Buescher on the pole.

Here’s all the info for the Sunday Cup race at Michigan:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:38 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:47 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 8:30 a.m. Drivers report to their cars at 4:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 4:30 p.m. by Father Geoff Rose, OSFS President St. Francis De Sales School in Toledo, Ohio. The national anthem will be performed by Season 17 winner of “American Idol” at 4:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 156 laps (312 miles) around the 2-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 40. Stage 2 ends on Lap 85.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 4 p.m. with Countdown to Green. Motor Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 3:30 p.m. and also can be heard at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App. Click here for the link.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for mostly sunny skies with a high of 87 degrees and a 2% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Kevin Harvick led 92 of 161 laps to win Saturday’s race at Michigan. Brad Keselowski was second. Martin Truex Jr. finished third.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for lineup

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Kevin Harvick wins Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan in overtime

Drivers give mixed responses to choose rule at Michigan

What drivers said after Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan 

Bubba Wallace places 9th, notes deal that will put RPM “over the top”

Drivers give mixed responses to choose rule at Michigan

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Only a few days after it was announced, NASCAR implemented its new choose rule on restarts for the first time in a Cup Series points race.

The occasion came Saturday at the 2-mile Michigan International Speedway, a far cry from its original use in the July 15 All-Star race at the half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway.

On the lap before a restart, drivers could drive to the left or right of an orange cone symbol on the track located a short distance beyond the start-finish line. A driver in fifth place could go to the left and restart second in the inside row, giving him better track position in the non-preferred lane, which Bubba Wallace did late in the race before he finished ninth.

Among the top-three finishers in the race – Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. – the race winner voiced the most excitement about the choose rule ahead of Sunday’s Michigan race (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

“The best thing about it is they had a race with it (Friday) with the Truck Series, made a lot of adjustments or a few adjustments this morning to the process, and I thought it went well today,” said Harvick, referring to NASCAR’s decision to move the symbol from 100 feet to 200 feet from the finish line. “I think it definitely gave some guys a chance that were kind of buried eighth or ninth, and I think (Chase Elliott) was one of those and wound up racing for the win.”

Elliott restarted second with 18 laps to go in the scheduled distance after he was fifth before the choose rule. He was able to lead nine laps before a caution.

“Definitely a lot to think about right there and definitely some processes that you have to go through, but you can take a chance and gain some track position,” Harvick said. “So I thought it went well and did exactly what everybody thought it would do.”

Keselowski said he was “agnostic” about the choose rule. He went from third to second for the final restart, bypassing Elliott, who finished seventh.

“There were parts I liked and there were parts I didn’t like,” Keselowski said. “I thought at the front, it seemed to be a little fun, something kind of different.  It’s one of those things where I think it’s just ‑‑ when you eat chocolate you want vanilla sometimes; it felt different and different was kind of fun. There was other parts where I was kind of a little questioning about it. Overall I’m kind of neutral on it.”

Keselowski called the rule a “different dynamic” that “opens up some different opportunities.”

“We’re all kind of learning together how that plays out,” Keselowski continued. “This was a first time on a bigger track or a 550 (horsepower) rules package track that we’ve seen this, and so it definitely changed a little bit of the race. I’m not confident to say whether it was better or worse, just felt a little bit different to me. Which it should feel different; that’s kind of the point. If it wasn’t a little different, then why would we do it?

“I thought there were times when it was interesting, there were times where I was kind of like, hmm, I don’t know.”

Truex simply called the result of the choose rule “ok.”

“I don’t know that it changed the race a whole lot, but it was interesting for sure,” Truex said. “We’ll see how it plays out ‑‑ we seen a lot of guys pick the outside, but a few guys were able to get the lead from the bottom, as well. Pretty interesting how it worked out, and definitely learned some stuff for tomorrow.”

Ryan Blaney, who finished fourth, wishes he could have kept third place before the final restart.

“Because I would have chose the bottom and had a little better shot,” Blaney said. “I am proud of the effort. (Harvick) was really fast. We need to work on our stuff a little and I think we can compete a little better tomorrow.”

Sunday Cup starting lineup at Michigan

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Chris Buescher will start on the pole for Sunday’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway after finishing 20th in Saturday’s race.

The top-20 finishers Saturday have their position inverted for the Sunday Cup starting lineup. Clint Bowyer will start second.

Winner Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s race 20th.

Click here for the Sunday Cup starting lineup.

NASCAR Cup Series at Michigan 

Race Time: 4:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Track: Michigan International Speedway; Brooklyn, Michigan (2-mile speedway)

Length: 156 laps (312 miles)

Stages: Stage 1 ends Lap 40. Stage 2 ends Lap 85

TV coverage: NBCSN

Radio: Motor Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: NBC Sports app (subscription required); mrn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Michigan Cup starting lineup: Click here for lineup

Next Xfinity race: Aug. 15 at Daytona road course (52 laps, 187.72 miles) 3 ET on NBCSN

Next Truck race: Aug. 16 at Daytona road course (44 laps, 158.85 miles) noon ET on FS1

What drivers said after Saturday’s Michigan Cup race

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Here is what drivers said after the race Saturday at Michigan:

Kevin Harvick — Winner:  “Anytime we come to Michigan since I’ve been at Stewart‑Haas Racing these cars have been just lightning fast. It’s definitely a place we feel like we should come up here and contend for the win, and today our Busch Light Apple Ford Mustang was just on rails, could go bottom, top, middle, was fast down the straightaway, would do everything that you wanted to do. Just got challenged by a whole bunch of restarts at the end that made it kind of crazy. But in the end it was a great day for us. Everybody did a great job, called a great race, and we capitalized on a fast car and put it in Victory Lane.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 2nd: “(Kevin Harvick) is just super fast in the corners and the straightaway. He was definitely the best car out here today. We put a good effort to kind of maximize our day and that is what we did, finished second. Proud of everyone on the Discount Tire Ford Mustang team. We will go back to work on it and hopefully find a little bit more for the race (Sunday).”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 3rd: “It was a good day. I just made a little mistake there and barely rubbed (Tyler Reddick’s) car off (Turn) 2 there and I guess cut both of our tires down. I really don’t know how it happened. My bad on that one. I hate it for Tyler, it messed up his day early as well. We just fought back. The Auto Owners Camry was really strong. If we could ever have gotten to the front, I think we would have had something for them. Lots of restarts and they’re crazy here. A couple of them didn’t work out. The last one did. Really good car and really good job by the guys coming back like that. Just need a little bit more.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 4th: “I thought our Mustang was pretty good all day. We made a good call there before the competition caution to come in and pit and that cycled us up to 12th or something and we were able to drive to third before that stage and then ran second in the second stage. We took four tires there when we got in our fuel window and it was hard to get through traffic. We didn’t handle good so we came in again with maybe 18 to go and changed it up a little bit and made sure we were good on gas and were able to drive through there. I wish we would have kept third before that last caution because I would have chose the bottom and had a little better shot. I am proud of the effort. (Kevin Harvick) was really fast. We need to work on our stuff a little and I think we can compete a little better tomorrow.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 5th: “The car was pretty good right off the bat. There’s still some things we can tweak on, hopefully. I’m scared to mess with it to try to make it better. It was just really, really hard to deal with in traffic. Anytime there was anybody in front of me, I had to be away from them, whether lower or higher, but not follow. It would not track at all with the car in front of me. That’s kind of been our ‘MO’ actually. Overall, just work on that.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 6th: “I thought we were kind of a second-place car. Once (Kevin Harvick) was leading there, we were able to stay pretty close to him. He was just so much faster down the straightaway than we were. I’m not sure that we would have been able to do much with him. We were certainly fast in the corners and we were just kind of a second-place car. My crew chief (Chris Gabehart) was concerned about loose lug nuts there around Lap 130 when the caution came out so he wanted to come and take tires and work on the car and make sure the lug nuts were tight. That set us back and put us probably 11th or 12th in line. We could only muster coming back to sixth.”

Chase Elliott — Finished 7th: “We had a strong restart there at the end of the race from the inside lane. When that next caution came out, I just didn’t see it playing out the same way twice, so I chose to go to outside lane. Our NAPA Chevrolet was just tight all day and the team worked hard to try and get it dialed in – they had a solid day on pit road. I think we learned a few things today that we can hopefully use (Sunday).”

Joey Logano — Finished 8th: “It was a good recovery. A little bit of practice this week would have been nice. That was one of the loosest and out of control race cars I have had. At the start of this race. The clean air made us look better than what we were. As soon as I lost clean air I was just trying to hang on. Unfortunately I collected a lot of damage along the way on the back bumper from everyone hitting me. I don’t blame them, I was in the way. Over time, by probably the beginning of the third stage we got close. Not quite to where we needed to. Then there at the end we pitted and may have gotten to the other side of it finally. At least we know where the edge is so we can work on it for (Sunday). We got a top 10 out of it. If you had told me we were going to finish eighth after the first 50 laps of this thing I would have taken it but greed always sets in and you want a little more there at the end. We got our Mustang for tomorrow and we got to the other side of it. We should be in the ballpark.”

Bubba Wallace — Finished 9th: “A solid day for us and our Victory Junction Chevrolet. I appreciate everybody back at the shop. I know this whole COVID-19 deal has been tough. I haven’t been able to go to the shop and show my appreciation and how much they really work and make our cars better week in, and week out. So, it’s been fun. We’re in the middle of ‘silly season’ right now, so my mind is there, it’s here. So, to come out with a solid top-10 finish is positive.”

Kurt Busch — Finished 10th: “With a shorter race we had a bunch of variables today, including a lot of restarts. When the spotter says, four and five-wide, and we didn’t get damage, I will take that any day. Our Monster Energy Camaro was really reliant on clean air, once we got back in traffic it was really a struggle for us, but we were able score points in the first two stages and battle back for another top-10 finish at the end. We know that we can do better, and we’ll get a chance to do that (Sunday).”

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 12th: “We had a fast Ally Chevy all day, but restarts hurt us. It was up and down all day fighting traffic and weird things happening on the restarts. We are going to talk tonight and get a better plan for (Sunday). It’s a long day for these team guys but we will be ready.”

William Byron — Finished 14th: “It was a tough day for our No. 24 Axalta team. We worked hard to improve the handling of our Axalta Chevy as the day went on. Luckily we’ll get another chance at it (Sunday) and we’ll hopefully get a better result and stay in the playoff hunt.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 16th: “That wasn’t the day we hoped for, but we learned a lot about the way we set up our cars as a team. Proud of Stewart-Haas Racing and congrats to Kevin (Harvick) for bringing home the win. We’re going to take a big swing at it tomorrow and hope to build on that.”

TYLER REDDICK — Finished 18th: “We had some good speed in our No. 8 Chevrolet Accessories Camaro today at Michigan International Speedway, but we just seemed to get caught up in other people’s messes today. I was able to move up into the top 10 early in the race, but (Martin Truex Jr.) made contact with us when he had a tire go down, which gave our Chevrolet some left rear damage. It felt like we had a tire going down shortly after that, so we were forced to pit under green for fresh left-side tires. We had to fight hard to get our lap back and did, but then our right-rear tire went down and we had to pit to repair that under green as well. Somewhat luckily for us, that tire issue happened close to the end of Stage 2, so we were able to get our lap back with the wave around, stay mostly on sequence with the leaders and really get back in the game. We were making some progress after that and were up inside the top 20 when we got some additional right front damage from another on-track incident, so we had to hit pit road one more time for slight repairs but didn’t lose a lap. We were able to avoid a couple late-race accidents to pick up a few more spots but didn’t quite get to where we wanted to be today. Good news is that we get another shot at it with our No. 8 Chevrolet Accessories Camaro (Sunday).”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 19th: “We got back in traffic in the final stage and were really loose. You don’t want to be in the back at this place, it was like gridlock. We ran well early, got some positions in overtime today and we start second (Sunday) so I’m optimistic.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 24th: “I was pretty happy with the way our Toyota was handling during the second half of the race, especially on the longer runs. Good job by Dave (Winson, crew chief) and all the guys. We’re still lacking the overall speed we need to be more competitive. That will come. We have work to do to make things better for (Sunday). One good thing is we will have a much better starting position (24th) than we usually have, so hopefully we can take advantage of that and have a really good finish.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 29th: “It was a difficult day for our No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops, Martin Transportation Systems (MTS) Ford Mustang. We didn’t fire off like we had hoped, but (crew chief Drew Blickensderfer) and the team did a nice job of working on the car all race long and I felt like we had a pretty decent run starting towards the end. Unfortunately we got collected in that last wreck and sustained heavy right front damage and we had to pit for repairs and ultimately brought the car home 29th. But tomorrow’s another day and that’s what we’re focused on. I’m ready to get back behind the wheel for race two of the Michigan doubleheader weekend and score Love’s Travel Stops and MTS a solid finish.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 31st: “Well, not the result we were hoping for today at Michigan International Speedway, but the good news is we have another shot at it (Sunday) afternoon. We started off too free but once (crew chief) Justin Alexander and the team were able to tighten up the No. 3 Dow MobilityScience Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 we were really good. At the end of the race, we were loose, sliding around four-wide when another car ran us over from behind. It ruined our top-10 finish. We’ll pull the backup out and go get them (Sunday).”

Cole Custer — Finished 34th: “It was a tough end to the day for us. We had a pretty good car and made good adjustments throughout the day. There at the end we just got in dirty air and it was hard to pass. Our HaasTooling.com/Jacob Construction Ford Mustang was good but track position and clean air were so important.”

John Hunter Nemechek — Finished 36th: “It was a long, tough day at Michigan International Speedway for our No. 38 Death Wish Coffee Ford Mustang. We actually weren’t too bad to start off, just needed to be a tick freer at the beginning. Unfortunately, we had some contact with (Chris Buescher), which sent us into the grass and then we had multiple tires go down, which ended our day prematurely. Appreciate all the hard work my crew has put into our cars this weekend and all the support from our partners. Thankfully, we’ll have another chance in tomorrow’s race.”