What drivers said after Fontana

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway:

Alex Bowman – winner: “How about that, California? I grew up quarter midget racing here, maybe 20 minutes from Pomona Valley. Went there every week. Made a lot of great friends there. I know a lot of you are here today. Man, so cool for Cincinnati. Seems like every time they are all on the car we run really good. Promised my buddy Aaron we would all get 88 tattoos if we won so I think I have to get a tattoo now. It will be a good time. It’s been a lot of fun. Thanks to (crew chief) Greg (Ives) and all the guys. Greg made a lot of good calls today. We were up front when it counted.

“(Is the second win almost as special as your first career Cup win?)? Yes, for sure. The first one was a real enjoyable experience and then we sucked for six months. We started this year so strong. I feel like I’ve got a lot on my side that I’m doing better. My life has gotten a lot more organized than it was then. Greg and the guys are just on point. We’ve unloaded the last two weeks and I don’t think we have had to make a change to the race car from the way it came off the truck. That makes my job a lot easier. I’m just so proud of this team. Everyone at Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick horsepower under the hood. The whole shop back home. They work their butts off. We’ve put a lot of effort in this new car and it is obviously working out really well.”

Kyle Busch – finished 2nd: “We have a lot of work to do. Guys did a great job here though just trying to work on it and trying to make everything we could out of it all day long, all weekend long. Interstate Batteries Camry wasn’t a second place car, but thankfully we got a good finish out of here and try to get some points. Guys are doing all they can, I know along with everybody at TRD (Toyota Racing Development). I appreciate all the hard work, we just have to get a little bit better. We finished the end of last year so strong, I don’t know what we’re missing here. Obviously, it’s a little bit of something here and maybe a little bit of something in a few different areas, but overall good car today.

“(How would you sum up your day?) Slow, we were slow. Just didn’t have the speed overall today for some reason. Then, there at the end felt like the tires were worn out at the last bit of the race.  Just frustrating day for us with our Interstate Batteries Camry. Give it up to my guys and everybody at the shop, they’re certainly working hard. I just feel like we’re kind of missing it a little bit – here, here, here and here and those things kind of add up and drag you down a little bit. Overall, great day I guess coming home with second and getting good points out of here.”

Kurt Busch — finished 3rd: “We did really good to balance our Monster Energy Chevy on short run speed, and long run speed. Being able to maneuver on re-starts is something that I’ve been harping on. Making sure we get better when we’re in dirty air. And to come away with a third place finish, that gains a lot of points back for us and I feel really good about the way the car handled this weekend. So, whatever we can do to baseline this, is what we’ve got to do moving forward.

“(Does it feel good to have the Chevys so strong? Bowman was real fast) As soon as his car unloaded, he was super fast. We were all trying to figure out what it was. But he did the job. As a team, they did their job. And he executed to put a Chevy in Victory Lane, so congrats to Alex Bowman.

“(You finished third. What else did you need?) Oh, a little spray can of grip. If I could spray some grip on her, we’d be right there. We just had different trends. The car would be wide-open for five laps and I’d be really fast after Lap 20. So, if I can narrow it down, I just need to work on that transition from wide-open to that partial throttle and then be able to maneuver through the draft.”

Chase Elliott — finished 4th: “(Was it a solid day?) Yeah, it was decent. I feel like we were better than we’ve been, which is good. Not good enough to win, obviously, but better than we’ve been. So, we’ll take it and move on. Alex (Bowman, race winner) was dominant today. He was by far the best. I was good for our company and hopefully we can keep it rolling. He was super-fast. So, we’re happy for those guys. They did a really good job.”

Brad Keselowski – finished 5th: “We had a good run today with the Discount Tire Ford. We ran fifth, which isn’t bad. There were some highlights. We were able to drive through the field there a couple times. The car had a lot of long run speed. We never had the speed (Bowman) had through the whole weekend but we fought really hard and scored a lot of points today to dig us out of a hole we had from early on in the season. There were a lot of positives. I think we executed really well today. I probably could have done a little better on one of the early restarts, but other than that the team did really good.”

Denny Hamlin – finished 6th: “We’re still slow. Our cars handled okay. If we don’t have a draft, we’re just run over. It’s tough because I feel like we’re getting beat on throttle time, but we’re also just getting murdered down the straightaways. Just need more horsepower, more downforce and less drag. If we can have all those, we’ll be better.

“(What happened between yourself and teammate Martin Truex Jr. during the race?) We’re just fighting like cats and dogs. I think I was on the bottom there on the right rear and it just dumps air so much on my right rear spoiler that caused me to plow tight and kind of shove up into him. It’s just a bad combination.”

Jimmie Johnson — finished 7th: “This team is going in the right direction. I know in my heart what I am capable of and what this team is capable of. It’s just taken a little bit to get the right people in the right places, and rebuild and get this Ally Chevy exactly where it needs to be. We just couldn’t adjust this car on the pits stops quite enough to get the tight out of it. It was really competitive and racy at the start of a run and then we would fade at the end. At the end, I thought I was going to blow a tire, I think I had cords on the fronts and I thought I wasn’t going to finish the race. So to salvage a top 10 out of it and two thirds in the stages, so we are headed in the right direction. I want to thank the fans here in California. There have been some great vibes all weekend.

“(How do you feel about today?) A lot of neat things happened today. The card is full, that’s for sure. I was pretty bummed about that last run. We got super-tight. I think I was pretty lucky to finish. I think one of the front tires was getting ready to blow out. We just didn’t stay on top of the adjustments needed to keep the car free and going, but we still had a great day and ran up front and led some laps and raced for the lead. But the longer the run, the tighter the car.

“(You are close to a win, but the closer you get the more you want it, right?) Oh, without a doubt. I’m a competitor at heart and I want to win races and be up front and get it all done. So, I was pretty disappointed the way it finished and ended up seventh. But it’s a good sign of where we’re heading.

Aric Almirola – finished 8th: “I have to clean up some things and we have to clean up some things as a team. I thought we had a top-five car and we just kept giving away all of our track position. We have to do better, but we are building and we got a top 10 and we will take that and move on. I think we have a lot of potential. I think Bugga (crew chief Mike Bugarewicz) and all the guys did a great job with the car and I felt like we had a top 10 car going into today and we proved that. We ran in the top 10 most of the day but I feel like with track position and a few other things going a little better, a little smoother, we could have had a lot better result. Overall, it was still a decent day and we will take the points and move on.”

Kevin Harvick – finished 9th: “We just didn’t have a very good weekend. This place wasn’t very good for us last year either. I am just having a hard time getting the car to be balanced all the way through the corner. I think as you look at it, we didn’t have a ninth-place car either, we just had a great day on pit road. Those guys did a phenomenal job on pit road and that kept us in the game.”

Erik Jones – finished 10th: “It was a step in the right direction. I don’t think any of us really had race-winning speed. I think Kyle (Busch) got some good track position on that restart and was able to maintain.  We got shuffled back and kind of had to come back from 15th. I don’t know, I think we’re off. We didn’t have anything for the 88 (Alex Bowman) or anything like that. We have to get faster, but I think we learned a lot. Just have more to get.  Don’t know how to get there, but we have more to get.”

Tyler Reddick — finished 11th: “I’m really proud of this No. 8 I Am Second team’s effort this weekend and glad that the results show it with our 11th-place finish today. We had a plan coming into the race on how we wanted to have our Chevrolet set up, and it worked out in our favor. The No. 8 I Am Second Chevrolet was snug all day, especially in Turns 1 and 2, but we continually improved on the handling throughout the race. It was a lot of fun being able to race in the top five for a portion of day, and I learned a lot while up there. I wish we could have finished one spot better to claim our first top 10 of the year, but my right rear tire completely came apart on the final lap, so I had to back off to make it back to the finish line. As a team, we’ve been continually improving each week so far this season, and I’m looking forward to continuing the momentum next week at Phoenix Raceway.”

Cole Custer — finished 18th: “My guys did a good job today in the pits. We need to be better, but it was a solid day. We’re still very new to working with each other. I wish I could’ve gotten them a result better than 18th, because the car was better than that, but we’ll keep working on it together as a team.”

Ryan Blaney – finished 19th: “We led a little bit and ran pretty good, we just corded a right rear at the end. We lost the lead there at the beginning of the third stage and kind of got swallowed up and the 88 got away and got gone. We needed to be in front of him. It is just the way it goes sometimes.”

Austin Dillon — finished 24th: “Auto Club Speedway has always been a strong track for the Dow Racing Team so we had high expectations of performing well here in our Dow Coatings Chevrolet. We didn’t qualify on the pole like we have in past races here, but that was by design. We set the car up to race well. I think we would have had a different outcome today if it would have been a little warmer outside. We had really good forward drive but were too tight taking off didn’t have the speed we needed. Still, we battled hard. We probably would have finished 16th but we shredded a right-rear tire and had to pit with two laps to go and ended up 24th. We’ll shake it off and go on to Phoenix Raceway.”

Daniel Suarez — finished 28th: “It was OK. It was a decent day. We pretty much maximized what we’ve got. We’ve got to keep working to get more speed out of the racecar. We’re one more race further along as a team, and everything was pretty smooth from beginning to end, no major dramas. We’ll go on to Phoenix and try and get that much better there.”

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Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.