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Chad Knaus admits he’ll likely think he’s still with Jimmie Johnson’s team when season begins

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For perhaps the first few races of the 2019 Cup season, Chad Knaus may need a road map of both the garage area and pit road as a reminder he’s no longer with Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team, but rather in his new role as crew chief of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports team with driver William Byron.

“Look, I had 18 years of working on that 48 car, so I guarantee I’m going to walk into the wrong transporter,” Knaus said Friday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint.” “At some point, I’m probably going to key up the radio and start to say ‘Jimmie,’ by accident.”

He then added with a laugh: “I may look at the 48 as it rolls down the front straightaway periodically and get confused, but hell, I’m getting old, so I get confused anyhow. So, that’s just going to be part of life.”

After 17 seasons with Jimmie Johnson, Knaus will be on the pit box of the No. 24 and with driver William Byron in 2019.

Knaus admits regularly referring to Johnson, with whom he won a NASCAR record-tying seven championships and 83 races in 612 starts together, is a hard habit to break..

“As we’re going through and setting rosters and doing our car lineups and what not, I’ve caught myself no less than at least 1,500 times, saying ‘On the 48, we want this,’” Knaus said. “It’s definitely a reality.

“But quite frankly, it’s a good thing. I’ve always been a 24 guy at heart, always. All the really productive years of my career began when I came to Hendrick Motorsports and began working with Rick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham back in 1993.

“To be able to wear that badge again is really exciting to me. It’s really kind of a homecoming for me. I’ve always had that passion for the 24 and always been a fan of that. So I’m excited to be back and be a part of it.”

As for working with Byron, Knaus admits it will be an interesting change, with Knaus being more of an old-school crew chief, while Byron is more of a new-age race car driver.

“The ability is there (but) it’s definitely different,” he said. “When you get yourselves into positions of a guy like myself or Ray (Evernham) … in the contemporary term of mechanical engineer, being very good at algebra, algorithms, material properties and things of that nature, you have to dig in deeper.

“The days that have come in by old school racer knowledge to really make things happen have kind of passed us to a degree. But, and the big but is, that isn’t necessarily what makes a good crew chief nowadays. What does make a good crew chief nowadays is to be able to come up with is good practical racer knowledge and convey that to the people that can make things happen.

“That’s kind of how I’ve started to approach things over the last couple years and it’s starting to show fruit from my perspective. So yeah, there are things you can do. The one thing that has remained consistent is we’re trying to get from the start/finish line back to the start/finish line as fast as you possibly can. That is a fundamental problem in our sport. And if you can do that, faster than anybody else, you’re going to be successful.”

While Knaus admits he’ll miss working with Johnson, the challenge of working with Byron has reinvigorated him.

“It’s definitely lit a fire back in me that I wouldn’t say died, but maybe helps transforms me into a more aggressive approach, which is definitely what we need,” Knaus said.

As for Daytona, Knaus can see Johnson win his third 500 — and a lot more with new crew chief Kevin Meendering.

Knaus says it would be “awesome” if Johnson can win a third Daytona 500, but also has high goals for Byron, as well.

“Jimmie Johnson’s going to go out there and win races with Kevin Meendering, period, 100 percent,” Knaus said. “Is he going to win the Daytona 500? I sure as heck hope so. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

“I love Jimmie like a brother. I hadn’t seen him since the end of last season. We saw each other at the shop two days ago and we gave each other a big old hug. My goal and our goal at Hendrick Motorsports is to have four teams that are capable of going out there and battling for wins and are in a position to battle for championships every single race and every single year. I feel that William has the ability to do that.”

While he’s not putting any pressure on Byron, Knaus definitely has Johnson-like goals for his young driver.

“The goal is to win the Daytona 500 and sit on the pole and win the 150 and we’re the fastest in practice and led every lap,” Knaus said. “That’s the goal. But the reality is it’s going to take a little time.”

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What to expect in Atlanta Cup race? ‘I don’t know’ is a popular refrain

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HAMPTON, Ga. — The phrase “I don’t know” has been uttered more often by drivers this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway than for any other race in recent years.

A new rules package has drivers guessing what they’ll need in Sunday’s 500-mile race. The expectation is that tire wear will spread the field just as it has done in past races on the track’s worn surface. The key for drivers will be how well their car handles.

“There will be teams (Sunday) that drastically miss (the setup) and ones that hit it,” said Clint Bowyer, who was fastest in Saturday’s final practice session. “The ones that hit it are going to have a lot of fun. The ones that don’t are going to be miserable.”

Their misery could last a long time. Drivers can no longer adjust the trackbar to help the car’s handling. That provides another challenge.

“There’s a lot to think about,” said Erik Jones, who finished third in last weekend’s Daytona 500. “The package, you don’t really know where it’s going to go. No trackbar adjuster, so you’re going to have to set your car up for the start of the run. I don’t know. Nobody really knows how the race is going to play out.”

MORE: Cup starting lineup

One key area could be restarts. Drivers expect them to be chaotic. With the engines limited to 550 horsepower, there is the question of trying to track down the leader. Gaining positions on the restart will be critical.

That could mean what lane a driver restarts in could play a significant role in their result. The preferred restart lane is the inside at Atlanta. For all five restarts last year, the leader took the inside lane. In two of those restarts, the first car on the outside lane (Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick) spun their wheels and lost at least three spots on the first lap of the restart.

With this package, will the inside line be more dominant?

“I think a lot of the reasons that the inside line was so important was that the top just had way more wheelspin, but with less horsepower, that should be a little less,” Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin said. “I don’t think it’ll be as detrimental actually, probably the other way around. Overall, until I see it, I’m not sure.”

But what makes one lane better than the other?

“I don’t know why it is,” Kyle Busch said. “There’s kind of a different color tone to the asphalt. I don’t know if has to do something to do with the asphalt mix when they paved this place that now you can definitely tell a difference between the inside lane and the outside lane.

“Also the inside guy has a straighter launch than the guy on the outside, he’s always kind of turning. … This is the worst for the launch, the application of throttle. To not spin the rear tires is so crucial, and it’s so easy to do in that outside lane.”

Even with the disadvantage of the top lane, Kurt Busch restarted there in sixth last year and gained three spots in one lap. Can Busch do that again with this package?

“All things are still up in the air,” Busch told NBC Sports. “We have less horsepower, so it will be easier to get the grip. You won’t spin the tires as easy with the full horsepower.

“Once we grab fourth gear, where is the draft because the cars have so much more drag. So it might not be where the bottom is preferred once you get to the corner because you want to side draft off the right side of the cars, which means you go to the outside.

“Still a lot of unknowns. That’s the box NASCAR wants to keep us all in, is keep us guessing in a lot of areas, and restarts are going to be big.”

Jimmie Johnson said he thinks another factor will be key in restarts. It will be who is behind.

I really feel like this package is going to be different than what we’ve seen in the past,” said Johnson, whose five wins at Atlanta are the most among active drivers. “You don’t have as much power to spin the tires. I feel like in a restrictor-plate race, who is behind you and the type of push they can give you is going to make a big difference in how things turn out for you down the backstretch. So, I feel like the leader will probably make decisions based on who they think is a good pusher.”

But even if drivers figure that out, there are many unknowns.

“We don’t know what to expect,” Bubba Wallace said. “I think it’s exciting for the fans because we’re just kind of going out and honestly taking what the car will give us. When they put all of us out there, it could be a good show, it could be a crapshoot. We don’t know.”

Kyle Busch becomes winningest Truck Series driver with Atlanta victory

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HAMPTON, Ga. — Kyle Busch overcame a loose wheel to win Saturday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and become the series’ all-time winningest driver.

Busch held off Johnny Sauter on a restart with five laps to go to win. Sauter finished second and was followed by Grant Enfinger, Brett Moffitt and Ben Rhodes. The victory is Busch’s fifth in the Truck Series at Atlanta.

Busch’s 52nd career series win moved him past NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. on the all-time list. Busch earned the victory in his 146th career Truck start.

“It’s a great accomplishment, but, my aspirations aren’t to go out there and set records,” Busch said. “My aspirations are to go out there and win every single race. I’ve started (990 Cup, Xfinity and Truck) races and I’ve only won 190-something of them. So there have been way more disappointments than thrills of victory. This one is certainly good. It’s big and will be way bigger years down the road once I”m all set and done and maybe the record will hold, who knows?”

Click here for race results

Click here for points report

The victory is the 195th of Busch’s NASCAR career. He has 92 Xfinity victories, 52 Truck wins and 51 Cup victories.

Busch gave up the lead on Lap 54 to pit because of a vibration that the team believed was from a loose lug nut. He restarted 23rd and made his way through the field. Busch reclaimed the lead on Lap 78 and controlled it from that point.

Stage 1 winner: Kyle Busch

Stage 2 winner: Kyle Busch

Next: The series will race at 9 p.m. ET on March 1 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

All-time Truck Series wins

52 – Kyle Busch

51 – Ron Hornaday Jr.

28 – Jack Sprague

28 – Mike Skinner

23 – Johnny Sauter

Jeffrey Earnhardt scores career-best Xfinity finish but wants more

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HAMPTON, Ga. — Jeffrey Earnhardt’s smile was pained.

Moments after finishing a career-best sixth in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he couldn’t help but think what might have been after restating on the front row with three laps to go.

“It’s a sore career-best, let me tell you,” Earnhardt said after emerging from his No. 18 Toyota Supra for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Earnhardt had never scored a top-10 finish in this series. He knew his nine-race deal with JGR was the opportunity of a lifetime. His previous best finish was 12th at Bristol in August 2014 and at Talladega in May 2015.

Before the season, Earnhardt told NBC Sports: “The pressure to go and get in a car that is capable of winning, that’s the pressure I’ve been looking for my whole life.”

That pressure Saturday?

“Best feeling of my life,” he said. “This is honestly a dream come true.”

Last week at Daytona, Earnhardt led the first 29 laps before finishing 15th. This time, he was at the front at the end.

John Hunter Nemechek’s spin set up the final sequence. The field pitted with six laps to go. Earnhardt entered pit road fourth and exited second to fellow JGR driver Christopher Bell.

The problem was that the inside line was significantly better on restarts. Bell choose the inside and that left Earnhardt on the outside. Bell took off on the restart and held off Cole Custer to win. Earnhardt fell back on the restart after spinning his tires.

“No one could restart on the outside, it was just tough,” Earnhardt said. “When we came out second, I was excited, but kind of bummed at the same time because I knew how tough it was going to be.

“I just hate it, man. You get put in that situation, you want to win races.”

Earnhardt next will be in the No. 18 in April at Talladega. He will next race in the Xfinity Series March 30 at Texas Motor Speedway with Xtreme Concepts Racing, which is aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing

“We should have a strong piece there, so I’m looking forward to running just as strong there,” Earnhardt said.

Christopher Bell wins Xfinity race at Atlanta

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HAMPTON, Ga. — Christopher Bell held off Cole Custer on the final lap to score his ninth career Xfinity Series victory Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The victory was the 150th for Toyota and first for the Supra.

“That’s really really big It all just boils down to the fact that you don’t get to be a first-time winner very often,” Bell said. “There’s a very good possibility Kyle (Busch) is going to win one of the next three (races) and I beat him to Victory Lane. I’m all smiles right now.”

Custer placed second and was followed by Justin Allgaier, Brandon Jones and reigning series champion Tyler Reddick.

Click here for race results

Click here for points report

Jeffrey Earnhardt placed a career-best sixth. His previous best finish had been 12th at Bristol in August 2014 and Talladega in May 2015. Earnhardt is not scheduled to be back in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 car until Talladega in April.

Bell led 142 of 163 laps.

Daytona winner Michael Annett placed 12th.

Stage 1 winner: Christopher Bell

Stage 2 winner: Christopher Bell

Next: The series races at 4 p.m. ET March 2 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway