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Darian Grubb prepared William Byron well for next big step with Chad Knaus

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Like the commercials from a famous insurance company, Darian Grubb left William Byron in good hands.

As crew chief, Grubb shepherded Byron through his rookie season in Cup in 2018. Now Byron will go forward with seven-time Cup championship crew chief Chad Knaus.

Byron had a difficult rookie campaign at times, yet he still captured Rookie of the Year honors. He earned four top-10s, with a season-best showing of sixth in the second Pocono race. He had an average start per race of 17.7 and an average finish of 22.1.

In addition, Byron recorded nine DNFs, including seven crashes and two engine failures.

Still, Grubb – who has shifted this season to a technical director role at Hendrick Motorsports – sees a lot of upside that came from Byron’s first season.

Darian Grubb was William Byron’s crew chief last season. Grubb has turned over the reins to Chad Knaus for 2019. (Getty Images)

“He still has a lot of up potential but he learned a lot last year, just learning how to set his expectations and learning how competitive the Cup series is vs. the other series he had been in,” Grubb said earlier this week at a Hendrick media session.

“You have to take those small wins,” Grubb added. “If you have a 15th-place car, if you can finish 10th with it, that’s a good day. It’s a long season, much more grinding than the other series, so you have to have those positives to take.

“It’s not just going to be about a win all the time. You can see him really progress through that through the season. He got a much more of a broad perspective of what Cup racing is all about.”

Prior to moving to Cup, Byron enjoyed significant success, including winning the 2015 K&N Pro Series East championship, barely missed a bid for the Truck Series title in 2016 (he finished fifth), and then rebounded to win the Xfinity Series championship in 2017.

In a way, it was good for Byron to have struggles and learn lessons in 2018 in his first season in Cup that will likely go a long way toward making him a better driver  in 2019 and beyond, Grubb said.

“You have to go through all those trials and tribulations of coming home and having to be happy with a 21st because you had a crashed race car,” Grubb said. “You’re not going to be a winner, you’re not going to be top five, but we finished 21st instead of 32nd.

“Those are the type of things, you take a positive out of it. You can’t just come in and say we should have finished top 10. Yes, we were able to make the best out of what we had leftover because the whole season result rides on that.”

As he enters his sophomore season in Cup racing, Byron may not be the next Jimmie Johnson, but he certainly will receive much of the same knowledge and wisdom Knaus imparted upon Johnson in their 17-year tenure together, particularly their first several seasons as they laid the foundation for five consecutive Cup championships in a row (2006 through 2010) and a record-tying seven titles overall.

Grubb pointed particularly to the communication and how it will develop and improve in time between the two.

“Just look at what (Byron) learned last year about the Cup Series period and now leaning on Chad and developing that communication skill set with him,” Grubb said. “Chad has known only one style of communication for one time and William is kind of new at that, as well.

“That’s what we worked on a lot last year. So as he develops that communication with Chad, I think it is going to determine how well they perform right off the bat. I think they’ve got a lot of up potential.

“I think you’re going to see them grow and learn very quickly. He’s a great kid, he’s going to be a quick learner and he’s going to study really hard. He did that a lot last year and I think you’re going to see a lot of growth quickly.”

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Kyle Busch dominates to Truck win at Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Kyle Busch extended his NASCAR Truck Series victory record to 57 in his hometown Friday night, leading 108 of 134 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion swept both stages and finished 5.958 seconds ahead of Johnny Sauter. Busch has won seven straight races in the series, including all five he entered last season.

Austin Hill was third, followed by defending series champion Matt Crafton and Ben Rhodes. Grrant Enfinger, who opened the season with an overtime victory at Daytona, did not finish after an accident with 43 laps to go.

Christian Eckes was right behind Busch in the opening two stages, but he finished 23rd after an early final-stage wreck.

Results

Driver standings

Jimmie Johnson tops final Cup practice at Las Vegas

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Jimmie Johnson was the fastest driver in Friday’s second and final NASCAR Cup practice of the weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The seven-time Cup champion hasn’t won a race since 2017, but showed plenty of speed, pacing the 38 cars that took to the 1.5-mile track, clocking a best speed of 179.432 mph.

Johnson and his Chevrolet were followed by five Fords.

Clint Bowyer, who was second-fastest in the first practice earlier in the day, was once again second-fast in the final session at 179.271 mph.

Aric Almirola, who was fastest in the first practice, was third-fastest in the final session at 179.170 mph.

Rounding out the top-5 were Kevin Harvick (179.015 mph) and Matt DiBenedetto (178.814 mph).

Sixth through 10th were Ross Chastain (178.660 mph), who will be filling in for the injured Ryan Newman in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400, followed by Kyle Larson (178.424), Ryan Blaney (178.359), John Hunter Nemechek (178.259) and Alex Bowman (178.089).

Final Cup practice results

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Next goals for Daytona winner Denny Hamlin: double-digit wins, Cup crown

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There was a time when Denny Hamlin’s best memories of the Daytona 500 were to just go home relatively unscathed.

Consider this: In Hamlin’s first six appearances in the Great American Race, his highest finish was 17th.

But after a breakthrough 4th-place finish in 2012, he has become the best overall performer in the 500 among active drivers.

“I don’t know what it is, but I think I started studying more about superspeedway racing around that time because I had been so unsuccessful for a very long time,” Hamlin said Friday during a media session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“We went a long time and I’ve won a lot of the Clashes and Duel races, but not many like Talladega – I think I have one win there – but it just seems like it’s that seven or eight years ago that the car came around and whatever techniques I use or I’ve adapted to this car have seemed to work.”

In the last seven editions of the 500, Hamlin has finished 2nd (2014), 4th (2015), 1st (2016), 17th (2017), 3rd (2018), 1st (2019) and 1st again this past Monday.

Do the math and that’s three wins – making him only the sixth driver in NASCAR history to win the 500 three or more times – and seven overall top-5 finishes in the last nine season openers.

Hamlin knew that getting his second 500 win in a row – both outcomes being the closest finishes in the race’s 62-year history – and third in the last five years was basically going to come down to a battle between him, Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney.

With emphasis on Newman, that is, before he was involved in that horrific last lap crash on the front stretch heading toward the checkered flag.

“I pulled the block on (Newman) coming to the white (flag) and I stayed in front and I knew he was going to back up to (Blaney),” Hamlin said. “I was trying to back up myself, but once (Newman) was attached (to Blaney), I knew they were going to come with a run I could not stop.

“I just held my line because if I started going sideways, the next thing you know (Newman) starts moving sideways and (Blaney) is already hooked to him, so he’s probably going to push him sideways into me.

“I just wanted to hold a straight line to let them know hey, pass this way, and when I did I was able to back to (Blaney) and was able to unattach him from (Newman). When I slowed his momentum, that allowed me to really tuck in right behind him. I don’t know if he checked up to keep us attached but once we got attached, I knew we were going to have a run back on (Newman).

“I knew he was going to get there, I didn’t know what was going to happen when he did get there, but certainly it worked out in my favor. I thought I was going to get back around (Blaney) at the (finish) line if there was no crash, but I wasn’t sure I was going to get all the way back to (Newman). I knew those two were going to jostle and I was just hoping to be in the right place when it happened and I was.”

Not having any 500 wins of his own, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch is envious of Hamlin’s three triumphs.

“Denny has really gotten way better ever since this car,” Busch said of Hamlin and how he’s adapted to the Gen 6 car in recent years. “He was always an aggressive plate racer, one that would make moves that you’re kind of, ‘Man, if he would just stay in line, I think this would turn out better.’

“He still does that today, but he’s making it work for himself, that not staying in line is better for Denny. I think since this car came though, he’s been a real good plate racer.

“He’s been fantastic at the game, he’s understood it, he’s made moves that I sometimes wouldn’t make that have worked, he’s able to pass a guy to get in line. … He’s very knowledgeable and skillful In making his moves and passes.”

Going forward from Daytona, Hamlin said his next goal is double-digit wins this season. If so, he’d become the first driver to earn 10 or more wins in a season since Jimmie Johnson did so in 2007 when the seven-time champ won 10 races.

“I’d be satisfied with that and then beyond that would be nice,” Hamlin said. “I think that the championship is an easy goal that anyone just throws out – win a championship, but that comes down to one race.

“If you can win a significant amount of races, it shows a bigger picture of your full year. If you make it to the Final Four, that’s a bigger picture of your entire year (Hamlin has reached the final four just twice since the format was introduced in 2014 — third that year and fourth last season). I think the championship – a successful year is making the Final Four. Anything after that is just whatever it is.

“Certainly we set lofty goals. I think everyone sets huge and lofty goals, but certainly we’re going to push ourselves to better what we did last year and it starts with Daytona and we’re able to repeat there so then let’s get a win now before we get to Texas to keep ourselves on pace or better from last year.”

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Johnny Sauter on pole for tonight’s Truck race in Las Vegas

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Johnny Sauter will start from the pole in tonight’s Strat 200 Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Sauter earned the eighth career pole of his Truck Series career – and first since 2018 – by topping the other 34 drivers that made qualifying attempts with a speed of 177.836 mph.

Sheldon Creed (177.643 mph) will start alongside Sauter on the front row for tonight’s race.

The rest of the top 10 qualifiers were Kyle Busch (177.282 mph), making his first Truck Series start of the season, followed by Christian Eckes (177.189 mph), Ty Majeski (177.189), Austin Hill (176.788 mph), Tyler Ankrum (176.275), Raphael Lessard (176.056), Grant Enfinger (176.010) and Brett Moffitt (175.890).

Tonight’s race starts shortly after 9 p.m. ET (FS1, Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Trucks qualifying results

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