Brandon Jones

Brandon Jones has a Georgia win on his mind

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Ever since he won the Xfinity Series race at Phoenix last Saturday, Brandon Jones – to borrow a line from a Ray Charles song – has had Georgia on his mind.

The Atlanta native is eager to return to his home track for Saturday’s Xfinity race at the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway in suburban Hampton, Georgia.

Jones, driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Supra, has had a strong start to the season. He finished fourth at Daytona, sixth at Las Vegas, won the pole at Fontana (but finished 30th) and then passed Kyle Busch for the lead and held on for the final 20 laps to win at Phoenix, giving Toyota its 500th win in NASCAR competition.

“We are coming off a huge win at Phoenix Raceway and our 19 team is really excited about our 2020 season,” Jones said in a media release. “We have a lot of momentum.”

Jones returns to his home turf ranked fourth in the Xfinity point standings, 28 points behind series leader Harrison Burton. More importantly, Jones’ Phoenix win locks the 23-year-old into the Xfinity playoffs.

Jones hopes the momentum from Phoenix carries over to Atlanta. He’s made four Xfinity starts there, with a career-best fourth-place finish in last year’s race.

“Atlanta has not always been one of my strongest tracks, but neither was Phoenix,” Jones said. “Our team is up to the challenge that the track brings with the old surface which makes saving tires part of the strategy.”

That’s why Jones is approaching this weekend’s race in much the same way he approached Phoenix. With all the hard work he and his team have done in preparation for Atlanta, Jones is hoping to make it back-to-back wins.

“(Our) team has spent a lot of time over the offseason preparing for Atlanta; we probably put in 200-laps around the track using Toyota’s simulator,” Jones said. “It’s a fun race and the Atlanta fans are great.

“I think if we get our Supra dialed in to run the bottom of the track, we will be the team in victory lane.”

NOTES: Kyle Busch Motorsports announced today that Jones will return to the organization for four races in the No. 51 Tundra during the 2020 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series season: June 12 at Iowa Speedway, at Pocono on June 27, at Kentcky Speedway on July 9 and Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 30.

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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).

Xfinity set to reach new track winner mark for first time in 22 years

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Unless Joe Nemechek, who hasn’t won a NASCAR Xfinity race since 2004, wins Saturday’s Xfinity event at Atlanta Motor Speedway (4 p.m. ET on FS1), the series will accomplish something that hasn’t been done since Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s first championship season in the series

A non-Nemechek winner will become the fifth driver to earn their first victory at a track in the opening five races of the season.

They’ll have Brandon Jones to thank.

When Jones passed Kyle Busch with 20 laps to go on his way to a win at Phoenix Raceway last weekend, he kept Busch from claiming his 12th series victory on the 1-mile track.

While it was Jones’ second career Xfinity win, it was his first at Phoenix.

Jones followed Noah Gragson‘s first career win to open the year at Daytona, Chase Briscoe‘s first win at Las Vegas and Harrison Burton‘s first career victory at Auto Club Speedway.

Now here’s where we make you feel old.

The Xfinity Series has not seen a new track winner in each of the first five races of a season since 1998. That year, the first 10 races of the year featured new track winners, including the first career wins of Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth.

The streak is primarily a sign of the times. The trio of Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell, who won 34 of 99 Xfinity races over the previous three seasons, have moved to the Cup Series.

It’s also a result of NASCAR limiting drivers who earn points in the Cup Series to five Xfinity starts a year.

Busch isn’t scheduled to make another Xfinity start until May 23 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with six races between starts. Brad Keselowski also competed in Phoenix, but a Team Penske spokesperson said the team hasn’t solidified the remaining schedule for its No. 12 car.

The streak could continue next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

None of the current full-time Xfinity drivers have won there. Even though Earnhardt is slated to compete in the March 21 race, he hasn’t won there in five career starts.

What’s the next track the Xfinity Series will visit where one of its full-time drivers has already won?

The May 2 race at Dover International Speedway. Justin Allgaier won the spring 2018 race there.

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.

Brandon Jones passes Kyle Busch to take Xfinity win at Phoenix

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Brandon Jones passed Kyle Busch with 20 laps to go and held on to win Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Phoenix Raceway.

It was Jones’ second career win in 141 Xfinity starts. His previous win came last October at Kansas.

Busch started from the pole and sought his 12th career Xfinity win at Phoenix. It appeared that he was headed toward that goal, leading a race-high 78 laps, but trailed off in the final 20 laps.

Not only did Jones pass him for the lead, last week’s winner at Fontana, Harrison Burton, also got past Busch and finished runner-up Saturday.

Still, it was some consolation that each of the top three drivers were Toyota drivers for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Brad Keselowski finished fourth, followed by Justin Haley, Chase Briscoe, Noah Gragson, Austin Cindric, Ross Chastain and Riley Herbst.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

STAGE 2 WINNER: Noah Gragson

RESULTS

DRIVER STANDINGS

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Harrison Burton is on a roll. After winning last week at Fontana, he roared back for a runner-up finish in Saturday’s race. He has scored a top-five finish in each of the season’s first four races. Burton also is atop the Xfinity driver standings after Saturday’s race.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Joe Nemechek had a scary moment with 72 laps to go when his brakes went out, causing Nemechek to hit the wall and sustain moderate damage to the right side of his car. Nemechek finished 32nd. … NASCAR met with Dillon Bassett, Brandon Brown and their crew chiefs for an altercation on pit road after the race. Bassett went to Brown’s car and reached into the car on pit road. The two had made contact on Lap 137 of the 200-lap race.

NOTABLE: This was the 500th win on the NASCAR national level for Toyota.

WHAT’S NEXT: EchoPark 250, Saturday March 14 at 4 p.m. ET, at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

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