Aric Almirola

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

NASCAR driver: ‘Sitting here at home on a Saturday. It feels weird’

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Saturday was to have been the day NASCAR fans found out: Could someone defeat Kyle Busch in a Truck race?

The answer had been no in Busch’s last seven series starts, dating to 2018, but the interest in his streak built the last few weeks.

It started with a Feb. 22 tweet from Kevin Harvick: “I’ll put up a $50,000 bounty for any full time cup driver who races a truck and can beat @KyleBusch in his next 4 races. #gameon.”

Marcus Lemonis, from series sponsor Gander RV & Outdoors, added another $50,000 to Harvick’s bounty. Truck owner Chris Larsen pledged $50,000 to any Truck Series regular who could win a series race with Kyle Busch.

Suddenly, Saturday’s Truck race at Atlanta Motor Speedway became the most anticipated series event since the Trucks ran at Eldora Speedway for the first time in 2013.

With sports shut down, including NASCAR, for the foreseeable future because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saturday became a day of confusion. What to do with no racing and no sports.

“I’m sitting here at home on a Saturday. It feels weird,” Matt DiBenedetto said in a video to fans.

Ryan Newman, who continues his recovery from a head injury suffered in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500, took time for more of what he called “therapy” on Saturday. He went fishing.

Aric Almirola did some racing at home with his children.

This much is certain. NASCAR postponed this weekend’s races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and next weekend’s races at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was to have made his one Xfinity start at Miami. Now? We’ll see.

Next on the schedule is Texas Motor Speedway. It hosts Trucks, Xfinity and Cup on March 27-29.

On Friday, the mayor of Fort Worth, Texas issued a state of emergency that included a mandatory cancelation of any events or gatherings with an expected attendance of 250 people or more. The mandate, though, is for seven days.

Texas Motor Speedway issued a statement Saturday that track officials are “currently preparing to host our regularly scheduled events and will continue consulting with officials on best practices and recommendations.”

But there will be racing Sunday even if Atlanta Motor Speedway will sit silent.

Kevin Hamlin, spotter for Alex Bowman, tweeted that there will be a 100-lap NASCAR industry iRacing event at 3 p.m. ET Sunday. Among those scheduled to take part are Hamlin, Bowman, Earnhardt, William Byron, Bubba Wallace, Justin Allgaier, Harrison Burton and crew chief Chad Knaus.

DiBenedetto mentioned in his video to fans about an iRacing event next weekend..

As restrictions continue and events are postponed, the only races for NASCAR fans could be online events with some of the their favorite drivers.

“Hope all this stuff passes,” DiBenedetto said in his video to fans. “Hang with us and we can get back to the racetrack soon.”

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Joey Logano is unanimous No. 1

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Phoenix and Las Vegas winner Joey Logano rockets to the No. 1 spot in this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Logano was a unanimous choice among NBC Sports’ writers, while Kevin Harvick was a close second in both the race and this week’s poll.

MORE: Ryan Newman tells Today show he wants to race “as soon as I possibly can”

Biggest drops from last week to this week: Fontana winner Alex Bowman (1st to 9th), Ryan Blaney (2nd to 8th) and Jimmie Johnson (3rd to unranked).

Fifteen drivers earned votes this week.

Here’s how this week’s power rankings look:

1. Joey Logano (40 points out of 40): Four races, two wins. May not have the fastest car but he keeps finding a way to win. Last week: 6th (tied).

2. Kevin Harvick (35 points): Has had a top 10 in each of the first four races this season – but he’s still looking for a win. Last week: 4th.

3. Kyle Busch (31 points): After a rough first two races, the defending series champ now has back-to-back top-five finishes. Last week: 6th (tied).

4. Chase Elliott (25 points): Has had excellent speed the last two races. Now he heads to his home track, where he’s never won a Cup, Xfinity or Truck race. Could this be the weekend to do so? And could he kick things off by winning the Kyle Busch bounty in Saturday’s Truck race? Last week: 6th (tied).

(tie) 5. Kyle Larson (19 points): Has been on a solid roll with three top 10s in first four races. Finally had a joint strong effort with teammate Kurt Busch for the first time this season. Last week: Unranked.

(tie) 5. Kurt Busch (19 points): After struggles in first two races, was third at Fontana and sixth at Phoenix. Not the fastest but making the most of the opportunities and finishing higher than the car runs in a race. Last week: 10th.

7. Brad Keselowski (15 points): With Logano and Ryan Blaney’s success, Keselowski may have been overlooked so far, but still has strong numbers: He has finished seventh, fifth and 11th in last three races. He’s likely licking his chops for Atlanta, where he has two wins and a runner-up in last three races. Last week: 5th.

8. Ryan Blaney (10 points): Even though he finished runner-up at Daytona, he’s had rough outings since with finishes of 11th (at Las Vegas due to pit call), 19th (tire issue with three laps to go at Fontana) and 37th at Phoenix due to a crash not of his making. Last week: 2nd.

9. Alex Bowman (6 points): Had a tough weekend with a car that was bad in practice, although it qualified eighth. In the race, finished 14th after winning the week before in Fontana. Last week: 1st.

10. Brandon Jones (5 points): It’s not every day you pass Kyle Busch to score a win in the Xfinity Series. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Aric Almirola (4 points), Clint Bowyer (4), Jimmie Johnson (2), Martin Truex Jr. (1), Denny Hamlin (1).

Long: Even with wins, Joey Logano, Paul Wolfe still have work to do

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — One has to wonder when Joey Logano and crew chief Paul Wolfe will begin to jell in their new partnership.

They’ve only won two of the four Cup races in their first season together.

Car owner Roger Penske’s decision to switch the driver/crew chief lineup for all three of his Cup teams in the offseason seems to be working about as well as possible.

Besides Logano’s wins, Ryan Blaney could have easily won the first three races and led the points until he was collected in a crash at Phoenix, and Brad Keselowski has three consecutive finishes of 11th or better.

Even with their early success, Logano and Wolfe both say there’s still much work to do to become a dominant team.

“We’ve done a good job executing races,” Logano told NBC Sports in victory lane after he went from 18th to first and led the final 24 laps to win. “Are we as fast as we want to be? No, not yet, but I think we’re a dangerous combination for sure.

“With (Wolfe’s) cars and being able to still be aggressive and do the things I need to do and have some long run speed on top of that, it has been a good combination for us. Nice to win a 550 (horsepower) and 750 race already. It shows we’re close, but we haven’t been the dominant car … in any race this year.”

Logano won at Las Vegas when the leaders pitted before the final restart. Logano, who was third at the time, stayed out, assumed the lead and won. At Phoenix, Logano overcame a pit road penalty and then lost the lead on his final pit stop when the jack broke, dropping him to 18th.

With the debut of the short track package, which included a much smaller spoiler than last season, a tire compound that wore out and the traction compound on the track, Logano was able to get to the front. What also helped was that he and Keselowski had similar setups. Wolfe, who had been Keselowski’s crew chief before this season, used elements of Keselowski’s setup from past years.

In a sign of how Logano and Wolfe continue to learn each other, Logano did not run make a mock qualifying run in practice on Friday. Wolfe said he wanted all the time in the two 50-minute practice sessions focused on “just trying to understand and learn where he wants to be with the setups under our car for race trim.”

Todd Gordon, who went from being Logano’s crew chief last season to be Blaney’s crew chief this season, noted the work that goes into learning a new driver. One such example came at Auto Club Speedway when Blaney had to pit from second place with three laps left because of a tire issue. Blaney finished 19th.

“It’s part of the learning curve that this whole team is going through with the change,” Gordon said recently on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We know each other pretty well but need to learn the little idiosyncrasies of what each driver’s driving style does, what we can and can’t be aggressive on.”

Auto Club Speedway also wasn’t a good race for Logano. He ran well until fading late and placing 12th.

“I’ll tell you what, I was sick to my stomach all week,” Wolfe told NBC Sports. “We didn’t have the performance I wanted at (Auto Club). Obviously (Blaney) was real strong at (Auto Club). We started the race strong but we got off course there. Really to finish 12th was not what we’re capable of where we should be. I didn’t sleep a lot.”

He felt much better after Sunday’s race at Phoenix.

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When Brandon Jones passed Kyle Busch for the lead with 20 laps to go and went on to win the Xfinity race at Phoenix last weekend, it marked the first time since June 2016 that Busch had been passed so late in a race for the win by a series regular.

Brandon Jones celebrates his Phoenix win. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The last time it happened was when Daniel Suarez passed Busch with two laps to go to win at Michigan.

Jones’ win was as much on the track as off. He went 134 series races before his first victory in October at Kansas. Jones needed only seven races to score his second Xfinity triumph. While there are a number of factors, Jones cites a greater worth ethic as among the keys.

“I kind of came into this year with a mindset of, ‘If I’m not doing it, someone else is doing it,’” the 23-year-old said. “That includes anything outside of this and it includes everything at the track and includes studying and everything. I’m exhausting myself doing it and at the same time, the reward is so big that it doesn’t matter to me. This is what it’s about.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has yet to talk to NASCAR about his penalty for passing below the yellow line in the Daytona 500 but plans to do so before next month’s race at Talladega.

NASCAR penalized Stenhouse, who was running in the top five at the time for going below the yellow line to pass Blaney. A replay showed that Blaney, who was leading the bottom lane, initially blocked Stenhouse but then Stenhouse went lower to make his move.

“I did not want to talk to (NASCAR) right after because I wasn’t really happy about it,” Stenhouse said this past weekend at Phoenix.

“I felt like my move at that point was go left or crash (Blaney), so I went left and gave myself extra room. We had already turned (William Byron) on accident, so I didn’t want to turn somebody else. I gave myself a ton of room and then I had (Kyle Busch) pushing me as well. Trying to give that spot back was kind of difficult.”

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Two teams placed all their cars in the top 10 Sunday at Phoenix. It marked the first time this season that any team had placed all its drivers in the top 10.

Stewart-Haas Racing had Kevin Harvick place second, Clint Bowyer finish fifth, Aric Almirola place eighth and rookie Cole Custer finish ninth.

“It means a ton, honestly,” Custer said of the top-10 finish. “It’s been pretty tough these first few races of the year. A lot of learning. It just kind of all came together this weekend.”

Chip Ganassi Racing had Kyle Larson finish fourth. Kurt Busch was sixth.

Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson finally put together strong joint effort at Phoenix

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After three races with opposite individual results, Chip Ganassi teammates Kurt Busch and Kyle Larson were able to enjoy a productive joint effort in Sunday’s Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway.

Larson finished fourth, while Busch finished sixth on the one-mile oval. That was a far cry from how they finished in the first three races together:

Daytona: Larson finished 10th, Busch 33rd.

Las Vegas: Larson finished 9th, Busch 25th.

Fontana: Busch finished 3rd, Larson 21st.

With their joint Phoenix effort, Larson now has three top-10 finishes in the first four races while Busch has two. But added together, the No. 42 and No. 1 are starting to jell more productively as a pair.

“With Larson fourth and us sixth, that’s better than what we ran all day,” Busch, who recorded the 300th top-10 finish of his Cup career, said afterward. “I feel like we struggled quite a bit, so we’ll take that.

“Any time you can finish better than where you run, you have to cash those points. We survived all those last restarts, we just weren’t on offense. We just couldn’t attack. I was just kind of slip-sliding around a bit too much today.”

MORE: Joey Logano wins Phoenix Cup race in overtime

MORE: Phoenix Cup results, point standings

MORE: What drivers said after Phoenix Cup race

With the next three races on 1.5-mile tracks (Atlanta, Homestead and Texas), followed by three of the following five races on short tracks (Bristol, Richmond and Martinsville), Sunday’s end result should help the two Ganassi drivers going forward.

“You just still have to find that right balance and I think we at Ganassi had some things that weren’t quite set right for anything,” Busch said. “I didn’t have short run speed, I didn’t have long run speed, but we finished sixth.

“So, I can’t complain. We have to put that in the bank, learn from it and then head to the short tracks later on at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond coming up. We were just inches away from another top five.”

Still, while the two teammates were happy with their respective finishes, they weren’t completely satisfied, either.

“I was just hoping that I could do something and maybe (race winner Joey Logano and runner-up Kevin Harvick would) mess up,” Larson said of the closing laps. “The 18 (Kyle Busch) went really low and I was just trying to run the bottom, and didn’t make up much ground.

“If they were to get bottled up at the top, I would have enough momentum I could drive in front of them. But it didn’t work out that way, obviously. We still got a top five, so it was a nice day for us. We fought back from a really bad car from the first run and tuned on it to come away with a top five, so that was good.”

Added Busch, “I feel like we battled the best that we could have. We didn’t have much for any kind of spectacular stat, other than perseverance. We didn’t have good short-run speed or long-run speed. Sixth is better than we ran all day, so we’ll take that. We really have to look hard at what we believe led to all of this. But at one point we were running 17th without a scratch on the car.”

Having gone in the first four races from a 2.5-mile track to a 1.5-mile track, back to a 2-mile track and then Sunday at a 1-mile track, returning to a 1.5-mile track over the next three races could potentially help both drivers make significant moves upward in the standings.

Larson leaves Phoenix tied with Aric Almirola for seventh in the standings – both drivers 43 points behind points leader Kevin Harvick – while Busch moves up to 16th, 74 points out of first place,

“Even though we finished sixth, we’ll cash that in,” Busch said. “But we have to learn from (it). Chip (Ganassi) has two really good drivers getting everything out of those two cars that we can.

“It’s fun. Larson and I have a really good read on each other on-track and we just have to get a better read communicated to the engineer staff to help our handling.”

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Long: Phoenix race proves tantalizing for title event

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Shortly after he held off Kevin Harvick for an overtime win, was showered in drinks by his team in victory lane and cheered by fans standing a few feet away, Joey Logano still remained as fast as his final restart.

So when asked if he could have rebounded from a pit road penalty and a broken jack that slowed another stop without the lower downforce package used Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, Logano’s answer came before the question could be fully asked.

“No way,” he told NBC Sports. “No way. Not in a million years. I could have never passed that many cars.”

Logano passed 82 cars on the way to his second Cup win of the season. Thirteen drivers — more than a third of the field — passed more cars than Logano on Sunday.

The numbers were not inflated by the field pitting under green. This was passing on the track, what the sport sought after many of last year’s races on shorter tracks failed to excite fans. Last year, no driver passed more than 76 cars in either Phoenix race with a higher downforce package. Sunday, 16 cars topped that number.

The lower downforce setup used Sunday, which included a spoiler 5.25 inches shorter than last year’s, combined with a tire that wore and the use of the traction compound builds anticipation for the championship race in November at this track.

“I feel like it was a different Phoenix race than what we’ve seen the past couple of years,” winning crew chief Paul Wolfe told NBC Sports. “The tire Goodyear brought had a lot of grip but new tires meant a lot, so it kind of changed the whole race strategy.”

Logano, fourth-place finisher Kyle Larson and seventh-place finisher Chase Elliott all came back from issues on pit road or ill-handling cars to score top-10 results.

“It seemed like the cars that had some issues … and would go to the back could drive back to the front a lot easier,”  Larson told NBC Sports. “The package was a lot better than last year’s short track stuff.”

Kyle Busch, not afraid to criticize a race package, was complimentary of the racing after his third-place finish.

“You could follow a helluva lot closer than you could before,” Busch told NBC Sports. “You could actually get into the corner behind a guy and roll up to his left rear and try to make him a little bit loose and try to make some moves on a guy.

“I didn’t get hindered by following people into the corners as near as bad as the other (package).”

There were a number of times when cars at the front ran close together and even had contact, something that was not as frequent last year at Phoenix. That led to more passing.

Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Clint Bowyer, who finished fifth, and Aric Almirola, who placed eight, each passed a race-high 103 cars Sunday.

“I hope the downforce package sold well to the fans,” Bowyer told NBC Sports. “It certainly was a lot more of a handful and a lot harder to drive than it was last year.”

Drives like that because it allows talent to play a bigger role.

Even with the movement throughout the race, Logano admitted he wasn’t thinking about a victory when the jack broke during his final pit stop and Logano went from first to 18th on Lap 268 of the 316-lap race.

“Honestly, did I think a win was in the books? No,” he said. “I’m 18th, if I can get a top five that’s going to be pretty good. I got a lot of cars to pass in a short amount of time. Good restarts. Cautions at the right time and more cars pitted.”

After an overtime restart, Logano was celebrating and looking ahead to November.