What drivers said after Phoenix race

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The field is set for next weekend’s NASCAR Cup championship race at Miami, following Sunday’s race at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

Here’s what many drivers had to say afterward about their performance:

Denny Hamlin – winner: “(How does it feel to know you’re going to Miami to race for the championship?) The caution was the most nervous moment. I was counting down, I have a clock inside the car and I was looking at the clock and thinking, 20 more minutes of laps, 10 more minutes of laps, five more minutes of laps. I knew it was inevitable. I’ve been through so much at this race track. Obviously in 2010 and the downfall of our championship run there to get it all back 10 years later, this is special to me.

“(Is this the best drive of your career?) One of the best cars of my career, I can tell you that. Fast car. But, yeah, I pushed for all I had. I mean, that’s all I got. Once we got the big lead there, a little over 10 seconds, I just kind of sat there. I got to thinking about if the caution does come out, I want to lap as many as I can. That’s all we had. So proud of this whole FedEx racing team … There’s still work to be done. Doesn’t guarantee a championship. Gives us a chance. Live to fight another day. That’s all you can ask for.”

Kyle Busch – finished second: “Just didn’t quite have enough (to win). I knew (Hamlin) was the best car in practice. I knew we were going to be about third to fifth. We were second. Guys did a great job, this M&M Camry was good. Thanks to everybody at JGR, Stanley, Toyota, TRD. It’s cool to have a chance to go race for a championship. Just keep coming up short.

“(You go to Miami with a 21-race winless streak. How do you change that?) Yeah, thanks for the reminder. Fight as hard as we can, do the best job we can, exactly what we did today. Today we just weren’t good enough. Next week we’ll just have to make sure that we are. Somehow, some way, if it works out, it was meant to be. If it doesn’t, then it’s not. Hopefully the sun will come up for another day.”

Ryan Blaney – finished third: “We ran third. I thought we got better all day. I thought we did a good job of getting better on long runs all day and the short runs too. We just got overall better, and then passed a couple cars we were behind the first couple runs, but nowhere near in the league, especially the 11, but in the 18 and the 19 were in. We’ve got to do our homework. We’ve got to start working on that. I’m really proud of the whole group for today, but the whole playoffs as well. It stinks that you miss it, but a solid day.

“(It seems like a Gibbs year. How do you battle that next year?) You’ve got to figure something out, right? It’s gonna be the same car next year, so everyone will spend the offseason trying to figure out the most efficient way to build these cars and everything like that, and we talk all the time about how this sport goes in cycles and they’re obviously on a really high one all year, which is really impressive, but I’ve got faith in the whole Penske group to really find some stuff and hopefully we have a decent run at Homestead and that leads into next year.”

Kyle Larson – finished fourth: “(Denny Hamlin) had an amazing race car there. So, he would have had been tough to beat. But obviously with that final restart there, everybody felt like they had another chance to try and beat him. I just felt like if I could have lined up on the outside row, I would have had a really good shot. Had I lined up sixth or eighth even, I felt like I would have been in a much better position than starting seventh. It didn’t work out. I restarted on the bottom every time but one today, so that was unfortunate. It’s still a good year for us. It was a little rough in the beginning of the season, but we have rebounded from that, worked hard, got our cars better and our team better. We were battling for a championship. We’ll go to Homestead next week, race and try to get a win.

“(What are your feeling emotion-wise now?) I would like to battle for a championship next week. We did a good job in the playoffs; I feel like we’ve learned a lot. We stayed consistent, didn’t get too anxious at times and got good finishes. I think we’ve ran in around the top 10 in every race, but Talladega. It was good. We finished top 10 at Martinsville in thepPlayoffs, so that was an improvement. We’ll try and be better for next year; get our cars a little bit better for these short tracks and have a better shot.”

Kevin Harvick – finished fifth: “(How would you evaluate your day?) I’d say about like I thought it was gonna go. The Gibbs cars were strong and we were probably about where we finished, about a fifth-place car. I’m just really proud of everybody on our Mobil 1 Ford for battling through the day and we’ll see what happens next week in Homestead. … (You’re the only non-Gibbs car in the championship race. What do you need to do?) Beat three Gibbs cars. Go faster than them.”

Martin Truex Jr. — finished sixth: “I know we’re ready for Homestead, and feeling really confident about that. Today we had a really strong car on the long runs, we just would get killed on restarts there. I was in a good spot on that last one to make a run at him, and went down into 1 and it just went straight. We fought that all day long, just took us too long to get going. You know, for having half a team and an old car and not really working on it, I thought we had a second‑ or third‑place car today, so that’s pretty good.  Excited for Homestead, and can’t say enough about everybody back at JGR.  To put three cars in the Championship 4 is pretty incredible.

“(What will it be like racing against two of your teammates?) I’m not sure.  We’ve raced against the 18 there a few times, and kind of quasi‑teammates, but never under the same roof, so to speak.  I’m not sure.  It’s going to be interesting for sure.  I feel like we’re here for a reason, and that’s because we all work together so well, and hopefully we’ll do that the same this week and throughout the weekend next weekend and then Sunday let the best team win.”

Erik Jones — finished seventh: “We struggled with the handling on our Interstate Camry early in the race. We made good adjustments but track position was everything.  We had a really fast racecar at the end but we just needed a few more cautions. We had a solid top-10 day and we’re ready to head to Homestead to finish up the season.”

Clint Bowyer — finished eighth: “That was a tough race today. We worked hard to get our car better and everyone did a really good job. We were just in the wrong lane there at the last restart. It was tough to pass today. Track position was everything. We’ll go to Homestead and finish this season out right next weekend.”

Joey Logano – finished ninth: “(What happened to your car?) I don’t know. I have no idea. It went from a really good car to a car that couldn’t stay on the lead lap with changing tires and a half-pound of air. A lot of things don’t line up there. That doesn’t make any sense. The car shouldn’t do that, but it did and once we put tires back on it we got to where we could run competitive at least again, but we were so far back and I was running so hard trying to get back to (Hamlin) that we ended up using it up again. We just needed a caution at the right time and we didn’t get it to try to get back up there. It stinks.

“We did the first half of the race really well. We had a fast car. We scored a ton of stage points and to the point that we could tie (Kyle Busch) and all I had to do was finish in front of him, which was the goal, and it went bad from there. I don’t get it, but it just wasn’t our year I guess. I don’t know what to say. You’re up there wishing that somebody gets up there and passes him, but (Busch) wasn’t gonna pass him. He could have, but wasn’t going to obviously to have all of their cars in, so it is what it is. We’ll move forward.”

Brad Keselowski – finished 10th: “I don’t know if I had anything for (Hamlin and Kyle Busch). I didn’t really get a chance to run around them on equal tires, but I felt like we were a top three or four car at least and lost a cylinder at the end. I felt lucky to bring home 10th. … (Can you be part of the conversation at Homestead?) We’re gonna sure try, I can promise you that. The tracks where tires fall off and the short tracks the Gibbs cars have been lights out, so we certainly have some room to be better and hopefully we can show it at Homestead.”

Kurt Busch – finished 11th: “Just battled with a loose handling car all day. We just couldn’t find the balance that we needed to be competitive. I got penalized for speeding on pit road and that just put us way behind. With no cautions, it was hard to make adjustments or recover the lost track position.”

Daniel Suarez — finished 15th: “We had good speed in the car on the long run, but we were lacking a little bit on the short run. I got a pit road speeding penalty early on, but we were fortunate enough to recover from that. At the end of the race we were 11th, and then the last caution came out. We all restarted with a few laps to go, and everyone had their own agendas. We lost a few spots and had some damage to the car, which is disappointing.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — finished 19th: “We just struggled all weekend honestly. We could never really get the right handling on our NOS Energy Drink Ford. I’m still proud of my guys has they never gave up despite going a lap down due to the tire issue. I’m looking forward to Homestead next week and finishing my season out strong.”

Daniel Hemric — finished 21st: “We made small gains today at ISM Raceway, and that’s what it is all about. The No. 8 Cat Large Dozers Chevrolet was too tight for much of the day, but Luke Lambert and all the guys on this crew kept adjusting on it to help the handling. We made some gains in the Rookie of the Year battle today, so we’ll go to Homestead next week to try to finish the year out right and lock up that rookie title. I’m proud of this entire team and all their hard work all season long.  I’m hopeful we can end the season on a positive note with that rookie of the year accomplishment.”

Aric Almirola – finished 22nd: “We fought hard all day, and even though we weren’t where we needed to be from a handling standpoint, we managed to get up to 11th to where a top 10 was possible. But then we got a flat tire and that was it.”

Austin Dillon — finished 24th: “Even though we didn’t qualify as well as we had hoped, we had a lot of confidence that we were going to have a solid day. Danny Stockman and the No. 3 American Ethanol team did their best to make improvements throughout the race, including making a big swing at adjustments during a pit stop between Stages 2 and 3. We ended up with a pass-through penalty at the end of Stage 3 for speeding exiting pit road, and that put a further damper on our day, even though our Chevrolet was definitely handling better towards the end of the race. We know we can improve on this so we’ll go back to the drawing board on this one. We’re looking forward to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway next week and ending the season with a strong run.”

Chase Elliott – finished 39th: “It’s just a continuation of our first two weeks, unfortunately. I hate it for our NAPA group. We had a decent NAPA Chevy today. It was really tough in traffic to catch guys and then pass and whatnot. But, I feel like we were in a good position to run solid. I’m not sure why we had a tire go down. I think that’s what happened, at least; it seemed like it. It’s unfortunate. Like I said, these last three weeks have been pretty rough. So, hopefully Homestead goes better and we can get prepared good for next season and get a good notebook for next year.

“(Track position seemed to be the key today?) It certainly seemed that way. You’re racing really hard and it’s like slow motion. It’s just hard to make a lot happen in a little amount of time. You really just have to think about what’s coming and where lapped cars ahead of you are running and where the person in front of you is running if you’re better than he. It’s definitely tough. It was a tough race to that point. I enjoyed racing there towards the end of that stage. I thought we were racing hard. You never want to have a round go like that.”

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Jimmie Johnson: ‘I’m smarter, stronger’ after COVID-19 episode

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Having been in an admitted “dark head space” after testing positive for COVID-19 a week ago, Jimmie Johnson said Friday that he is “ready to go” to return to the NASCAR Cup Series and Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

Johnson was forced to miss last weekend’s race at Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19.

Earlier this week, Johnson tested negative twice more than 24 hours apart. After that and being cleared by a doctor, NASCAR reinstated Johnson.

“It’s been an interesting week or so, to have a positive test and then the two negative tests, just the emotional journey you go through and worrying about your safety, your family’s safety, watching a race with someone else in your race car,” Johnson said during a media Zoom conference. “Coming to grips with the reality of all that has been challenging.

“I feel like I’m a smarter, stronger person today experiencing all this. Clearly extremely happy to be reinstated and ready to be back with my race team and that race car.”

Johnson proved to be asymptomatic. He demurred when asked if the original test was a false positive.

“I’ve had no symptoms through this journey,” he said. “There are a lot of scenarios that can play out and to go through them and to form an opinion would just be speculating. At this point, I just don’t think that’s very intelligent or smart to do.

“I followed the protocol that NASCAR has in place and is the same protocol all the other major sports have as well. I’ve been watching the numerous positives take place and also seen many examples of a double negative within a 24-hour period take place and those athletes have been reinstated. It’s a science-based reinstatement process.

“… I’ve followed the protocol, it brings a lot of questions as to where I was in the journey of being positive. There’s a lot of speculation there. I don’t know those answers and I’m the most frustrated person out there, especially living in the world of facts that I do. To not have the facts drives me bananas.”

Johnson pronounced himself fit for Sunday’s race: “I feel great, I’m excited and I’m ready to go. … I’m super excited. In my head of optimism, boy, what a comeback story, the COVID comeback. It would really be a special moment. I’ve always been highly motivated but it would be really cool to have great success Sunday or certainly in the near future with everything.”

As the last week has played out, Johnson has run the gamut of emotions since he was first told about the positive result.

“My first response was just anger, I started cussing and I used every cuss word I knew of and I think I invented a few new ones,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “It was just so weird at the anger because I’ve been asymptomatic. First anger hits and then speculation in my mind and it was like wait a second, there’s nothing good to come of this. No one knows, I don’t know, it’s just time to move on.

“Then I got very excited looking at the facts: I missed just one race, still am above the (playoff) cut line and then the optimism I hope I get that second negative (result) and then I did. I feel like I’m more on the optimistic side of things and really out of the dark head space I was in, and moving in the right direction and looking forward in all this.”

Last Sunday, sitting at his family’s home in Colorado, Johnson admitted it was strange to see someone else – namely fill-in driver Justin Allgaier – in his No. 48 Chevy for the first time since Johnson first began driving that car in Cup late in 2001.

“It’s a weird set of events,” Johnson said. “Saturday night trying to go to sleep was probably the most difficult time for me, knowing I wasn’t going to be in the car.

“It was the peak of emotions going with missing a race and the consecutive start streak coming to an end, not being in a car, my final year (racing in NASCAR), all the things you can think of.

“Sunday morning wasn’t great, but I joined the team call we have before the race, I was able to hear the voices of my crew guys, and give them a shot in the arm and pump them up and just be involved in that team moment. It’s crazy how that relaxed me because I was convinced I wasn’t going to be able to watch the race.”

Johnson’s teleconference lasted nearly 30 minutes. Here are some other topics he covered:

Racing this weekend at Kentucky, one of only four current tracks the seven-time Cup champ has never won on (others are Charlotte Roval, Chicagoland and Watkins Glen): “Kentucky has probably been one of my top two or three most difficult tracks to compete at. I have mixed feelings for the place because when I first started at Hendrick Motorsports, I felt like I lived at that raceway doing testing for the team, getting in my laps and reps as a rookie coming into the sport. I have positive vibes from there, but my race experience there from the Busch Series days and even the Cup (series), has been demanding and tough. I hope to conquer the track from that personal standpoint and then clearly with what I’ve been through, my friends, family and fan base have been through, it’d be nice to leave there with a trophy.”

Why he tweeted out another show of support for Bubba Wallace earlier this week: “With the current events, just letting it be known I stood with Bubba at the beginning of this journey and I continue to stand with Bubba. (It was in response) to the tweet the President put out.”

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Friday’s Xfinity race at Kentucky: Start time, forecast and more

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Time for Part II of the Xfinity Series doubleheader at Kentucky Speedway.

Xfinity teams return to the 1.5-mile speedway tonight for the Alsco 300.

The top-15 finishers from Thursday night’s race have been inverted, resulting in Myatt Snider starting on the pole for tonight’s race. Jesse Little will start second.

Here’s all the info you need for the race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be at 8:05 p.m by Tyler Reddick. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 8:14 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 10:30 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments are at 6 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 7:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 7:57 p.m by Larry Campbell of Kentucky Raceway Ministries. The national anthem will be performed at 7:58 p.m. by Felita LaRock, former lead vocalist, United States Air Force Band of Flight.

DISTANCE: The race is 200 laps (300 miles) around the 1.5-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 45. Stage 2 ends on Lap 90.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 20

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Its coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s coverage will begin at 7:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for mostly clear skies, a high of 81 degrees and a 2% of rain predicted at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Austin Cindric beat Riley Herbst in overtime to win Thursday night’s Kentucky race.

TO THE REAR: Daniel Hemric (driver change for No. 8 car), Justin Allgaier (backup car), Colby Howard (backup), Brandon Jones (backup), Kody Vanderwal (backup), Timmy Hill (backup), Brandon Brown (backup), Ronnie Bassett Jr. (backup)

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the lineup

Stage is set for Cup teams in race for points

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With 10 races left in the Cup regular season, the push for stage points is starting to play a key role in strategy and the results are showing in the standings.

Austin Dillon holds what would be the 16th and final playoff heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1). But as Matt Kenseth nearly showed last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a victory by a driver outside the top 16 will take a playoff spot away from one hoping to make it by points.

Teams also are mindful that the regular season finale will be at Daytona International Speedway, which could lead to a surprise winner. Three of the last five Cup points races at Daytona saw a driver score either their first or second career Cup win: Dillon, Erik Jones and Justin Haley.

Teams already are trying different strategies to get away from 16th in the standings or climb into a potential playoff spot.

Matt DiBenedetto entered the Pocono doubleheader weekend 15th in the standings. Focusing on stage results, he scored 17 stage points in the two races that weekend and added 11 stage points last weekend at Indy.

Stage points can just make such a huge difference, especially this point in the year when the point stuff is really starting to settle out a little bit,” DiBenedetto said after the Pocono weekend. “People are settling in place, so you’ve got to take everything you can get because that makes a big difference as far as securing a solid spot in the playoffs.”

Those 28 stage points he’s earned the past three races helped DiBenedetto climb to 12th in the standings heading to Kentucky. He’s scored 26 more stage points than Clint Bowyer the past three races. That 26-point advantage helped put DiBenedetto three points ahead of Bowyer in standings.

William Byron‘s stage win at Indy proved key in helping him climb the points standings. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

William Byron won the first stage last weekend at Indy and collected 10 stage points (and one playoff point) after crew chief Chad Knaus had Byron stay on track under caution when most of the leaders did pit with eight laps left in the stage. Byron restarted in the lead and held that position for the final four laps of the stage under green.

Those 10 points helped Byron pass Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for 14th in the standings. Byron leads Johnson, who sat out Indy because he had tested positive for COVID-19, by two points. Johnson has since had two negative tests for the coronavirus and been reinstated for this weekend.

Another driver who has benefitted from a strategy focused on stage points is Dillon. He’s scored 18 stage points the past three races to nine stage points by Jones. Dillon holds what would be the final playoff spot by six points on Jones.

2. Will this be Kyle Busch’s weekend?

The reigning series champion has one win in the last 38 races but heads to a Kentucky Speedway that has been good to him, even though Kurt Busch nipped his younger brother for the win in last year’s race.

Kyle Busch has two wins in nine starts at Kentucky and leads all drivers in top-five finishes (seven), top-10 finishes (eight) and laps led (621) at the track.

Busch’s lone victory in the last 38 races came in last year’s championship race in Miami. In that same span, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have combined to win 14 races.

Also during that 38-race stretch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have combined to win 16 races (42.1%). Each has eight wins in that time.

3. Speeding on pit road

Here’s a look at the number of pit road speeding penalties drivers have had in the first 16 races of the Cup season:

6 – Quin Houff

5 – Ryan Newman, Bubba Wallace

4 – Corey LaJoie, Garrett Smithley, Daniel Suarez

3 – Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., JJ Yeley,

2 – Christopher Bell, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Timmy Hill, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell, Brennan Poole, Ryan Preece.

1 – Chris Buescher, William Byron, Chase Elliott, Joey Gase, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, John Hunter Nemechek, Tyler Reddick,

0 – Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr.

4. Streakin’

With Jimmie Johnson missing last weekend’s race at Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19, his consecutive starts streak ended at 663, ranking fifth on the all-time list. Johnson has since been cleared to race this weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

Kevin Harvick ranks sixth on the list of longest consecutive starts streak with 656 consecutive starts heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

Here is the top 6 in longest consecutive streaks:

797 — Jeff Gordon

788 — Ricky Rudd

704 — Bobby Labonte

697 — Rusty Wallace

663 — Jimmie Johnson

656 — Kevin Harvick

5. More of the same for Chevy teams?

Chevrolet teams are winless in their last eight Cup races and the manufacturer has one win in nine races at Kentucky. That victory came last year with Kurt Busch beating Kyle Busch at the finish.

Since Chase Elliott won the second Charlotte race in late May, Chevy drivers have not won. Elliott finished second in Miami, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was second at Talladega and Matt Kenseth was second at Indianapolis.

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UPDATE: Justin Allgaier cleared to race tonight at Kentucky

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UPDATE (1 p.m. ET): After Thursday night’s wreck that sent him to a local Sparta, Kentucky area hospital, Justin Allgaier has been cleared to race in tonight’s second half of the Xfinity Series weekend doubleheader at Kentucky Speedway.

His team, JR Motorsports, made the announcement via Twitter:

Allgaier will have to start from the back of the field due to having to go to a backup car, as his primary car was damaged in Thursday night’s wreck.

UPDATE (9:15 a.m. ET):

Justin Allgaier was released early Friday morning from a local Sparta, Kentucky area hospital after being evaluated following his last-lap crash in Thursday night’s Xfinity Series race at Kentucky Speedway.

According to a tweet from his team, JR Motorsports, “Justin Allgaier was treated and released from a local hospital early this morning for non-racing related medical purposes following last night’s event at Kentucky Speedway. He will undergo further evaluation today before being cleared to race.”

The second race of the Xfinity Series weekend doubleheader at Kentucky will take place tonight at 8 p.m. ET.

Allgaier’s wife, Ashley, was upset at several rumors that appeared on social media regarding her husband’s condition which ultimately were proven to be false.

ORIGINAL STORY:

Justin Allgaier has been taken to a local hospital for further evaluation after he was involved in a last-lap crash in Thursday night’s Xfinity race at Kentucky Speedway.

The wreck occurred in overtime and involved four drivers: Allgaier, Kody Vanderwal, Timmy Hill and Ronnie Bassett Jr.

The other drivers were checked and released from the infield care center.

The Xfinity Series is set to hold its second race of a doubleheader at Kentucky Friday night at 8 p.m. ET.