Daniel Suarez

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Friday 5: iRacing gives Cup rookie feel of the real thing and more

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Strapping into a Cup car to begin a race? No problem for rookie Christopher Bell.

But competing in an iRacing event in the comfort of his home?

Well …

“For whatever reason, I get more nervous whenever I’m racing on my computer than I do in real life,” Bell told NBC Sports. “I’ll be up there sweating and death gripping the steering wheel. … Whenever you get into a real race car it’s more off of reactions and instincts. You’re just kind of along for the ride.

“But, man, for whatever reason, basically everybody I’ve talked to said the same thing. You get more nervous on the computer than you do in real life.”

Understand that Bell has been racing on a computer for a decade or so. He also helped develop iRacing’s sprint car and dirt track racing, which debuted in 2017.

Bell’s nerves will return Sunday for the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, which debuts at 1:30 p.m. ET. on FS1 and feature drivers from the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series racing at a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The multi-week Pro Invitational Series will feature Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Bell, among others.

“I’m just excited to see who all is going to participate in it,” Bell said. “It’s really cool to see how far this deal has come. It’s going to be a lot of fun to have something to race on Sunday.”

iRacing has become a haven for competitors and fans with NASCAR racing postponed through the May 3 Cup event at Dover International Speedway because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bell also is working on his World of Outlaws sprint car in his free time. He partnered with Chad Boat last year on a sprint car team and won in October at Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt, Indiana. There’s plenty of work to do on the car.

“We had it stripped from last year,” Bell said. “Our first race wasn’t scheduled until April 16 I think. Now that everyone has got a little bit of time off, we’re just trying to get it ready. If there are some races in the foreseeable future, we’ll go do them.”

Bell admits this break seems like another offseason but the difference is that he raced this past offseason in New Zealand and the Chili Bowl.

“It’s very strange not having anything to go race,” he said. “That’s a really big advantage of having iRacing right now and being active in it. You’re able to, obviously not feel the race car itself, but you are getting every other cue, all the visuals, all the reaction time. It’s real racing and it’s a lot of fun, too.”

2. A plan to help others

The coronavirus has put nursing homes and assisted living centers throughout the country on a virtual lockdown, preventing residents from having visitors because older adults are at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

As Jon Wood, senior vice president of Wood Brothers Racing, talked this week to his mother, who oversees marketing for a pair of assisted living centers in Stuart, Virginia, the question arose of what could be done for those residents.

Wood recalled watching the MSNBC show “Lockup” that goes behind the scenes at prisons. He remembered seeing how video conferencing took place between visitors and inmates to keep them separate. Wood thought the same concept could be done at assisted living centers and nursing homes to protect older adults.

Then it became a matter of purchasing enough tablets that could be used for the video conferencing. Wood Brothers Racing donated $1,500 and Wood put out a request on social media for $10 donations through the team’s website. Donations were done through the team’s store so Wood could have the address information for each donor to send thank you notes signed by Matt DiBenedetto.

Wood set a modest goal of a few hundred dollars in donations and has been overwhelmed at the response.

As of Thursday afternoon, Wood said $31,000 in donations had been made, allowing him to purchase about 200 tablets for nursing homes and assisted living centers.

“Every little $10 donation has added up and it’s crazy how it has exploded,” Wood told NBC Sports.

Wood was at a nursing home Thursday in Stuart as a person outside the building used one of the tablets to speak to a resident inside, who was communicating on another tablet.

“I’ll be honest,” Wood said, “the whole time I was nervous, hoping it would work.”

It did.

Now he’s getting requests from other retirement homes and assisted living centers for tablets to help their residents connect to family and friends.

Wood’s work isn’t done. Donations can continue to be made on the team’s website. For every $150, another tablet will be purchased.

“There’s no reason to stop,” Wood said. “I’ve got plenty of thank you notes.”

3. Challenges ahead

NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ comment this week that the sanctioning body intends to run all the Cup races this season and wants to reschedule the postponed races before the playoffs, has some crew chiefs pondering what things could be like this summer.

Providing NASCAR returns May 9 at Martinsville, that would leave 17 weekends to run 22 races and the All-Star Race. There are only two off weekends during that stretch (July 26 and August 2).

To run all those races before the playoffs means that NASCAR will have to do some creative scheduling, whether that is additional doubleheader weekends and/or mid-week races.

What seems certain is an increased workload on teams, particularly crew members who are traveling to each race.

Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott at Hendrick Motorsports, said he’s already pondered such scenarios.

“We’ve looked at all that and that’s going to be a huge logistical challenge,” Gustafson told NBC Sports. “I don’t know what the schedule is going to be but it’s certainly going to be difficult. The first thing that kind of comes to my mind is that the road crew is basically going to be removed from assisting any preparation in the shop, especially if you are racing on Wednesdays or you are racing two races in a row or you’re going to be traveling for an extended period of time.

“They’re not going to be able to assist in the production of the cars. It’s all going to fall back on the shop and it’s going to be extremely important for those guys to be able to carry that load, which our shop has done a fabulous job this year. Logistically, it’s going to be very, very difficult. It’s going to be tough to manage that.”

For as challenging as it could be for an organization such as Hendrick Motorsports, the task will be even greater for a smaller team such as Go Fas Racing, which has about 20 employees.

Ryan Sparks, crew chief for Corey LaJoie and the No. 32 team said his team could face challenges if NASCAR does run all the postponed races before the playoffs. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“Even working ahead and being prepared, I see a lot of sleepless nights in the near future,” said Ryan Sparks, crew chief for Corey LaJoie at Go Fas Racing. “I live for it man. I could give up sleep to go racing. I’m all good for it.”

Even more responsibility will be on LaJoie to do all he can to avoid an accident. Repairing cars will only add to the team’s workload during that time.

“The biggest thing that will help us is coming out of the race weekends clean,” Sparks told NBC Sports. “Not making any mistakes on the race track and tearing up a car where we can turn it around quickly and go to the next track if needed.”

Sparks said employees are working in the shop while keeping a safe distance to prepare cars for the coming races and for what could be a busy summer of racing.

“Being small and still being able to come to work and work ahead and be prepared is key in this moment,” he said. “If they just sprung it upon us at the last minute, we would really struggle.”

Sparks said while bigger teams will put new bodies on cars to run at other tracks, that isn’t always an option for his team. 

“That’s not going to take us to the next level,” he said of all that extra work with a small crew. “It’s just going to put us further behind. As long as we have a good, solid intermediate product, that’s what we’re going to take to each intermediate track where the bigger teams have track-specific cars.”

4. Work still to do

Although some race shops are closed and NASCAR has banned testing not related to the development of the Next Gen car, there’s still work for teams.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson says he and his engineers are examining areas that can improve the performance of Chase Elliott’s cars.

Chase Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson are in their fifth Cup season working together. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“The rules this year are much more stringent than they’ve been in the past, we’re having to certify a lot of the components,” Gustafson said, referring to NASCAR’s freeze on many new parts for this season with the Next Gen car set to debut next season. “There’s not just a whole lot of places to go and find performance. I expect things to be similar when it restarts, but I think that’s certainly just an educated guess on my part.”

If so, that will be a good sign for Elliott fans. Elliott won three stages in the first four races.

But that’s not stopping Gustafson and his engineers, who are working from home, from trying to find any area to make the cars better.

“It’s very much like the offseason to me,” Gustafson said of the break in racing until at least May. “You know what you feel like you need to improve and you’re trying to mine as much as you possibly can. Then at the same time you have to be a little bit careful and say, ‘Hey I can’t get too caught up in these things because I’m assuming this is better and I don’t want to go down this road and ultimately be worse.’ It is much like a research and development phrase and you’re trying to be prepared.”

One of the advantages of working at home during this pause in the sport is it allows Gustafson to continue healing from the mountain bike accident he suffered last month while in Fontana, California for the race at Auto Club Speedway. Gustafson suffered a torn AC joint in his right shoulder and a hairline fracture in his right clavicle.

“It’s been more convenient for me to stay off of it,” he said. “Right now, I’ve just been in the phase of basically not doing a whole lot of (physical therapy). It’s just basically rebuilding the ligaments.”

5. Long, strange ride

Daniel Suarez and his girlfriend made it to California on Thursday, driving across the country to retrieve a 1963 VW double cab bus he found online and purchased.

Suarez’s first car was a VW Beetle and that has fostered a lifelong love of the make and hunt for such cars to restore.

He recently found the 1963 VW double cab bus, which he said was in good condition, having had only two owners and having been parked since 1982.

Suarez told NBC Sports that he originally joked with his girlfriend about driving out to California to get the vehicle but when she said yes, the trip was on.

Much has changed since they hit the road. When they first left North Carolina, restaurants were still serving people inside. Now, they’re only open for take out or the drive-thru lane. That has meant many meals in his truck. Suarez also said seeing cities vacant has been stunning.

“I’ve been surprised in many different places how different it is,” Suarez said. “We made this decision because we knew we were going to be safe staying away from everyone and just being in the (truck) for many hours.

“We just spent the night in Las Vegas, it was one of the most crazy things I’ve seen in my life. The whole Las Vegas is empty. It’s almost like a movie. It’s very, very incredible. We walked into a hotel and the hotel casino was empty. We got lucky that we got a room. Last night was the last night they were actually offering rooms (with Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak closing all nonessential business for 30 days to stem the spread of COVID-19). It’s extremely, extremely strange. We’ve just been trying to take care of ourselves.”

While on the trip, Suarez and his girlfriend have had a chance to visit some sites, such as Monument Valley, which is located on the Arizona and Utah border, and Horseshoe Bend in Arizona.

“I’m a big outdoor person and Julia is the same way,” Suarez said. “We’ve been talking about a road trip for like a year but with the racing schedule it’s almost impossible to do something like this without being in a hurry.

“Fortunately for us, some of the places that we have visited like Monument Valley and Horseshoe Bend, they’ve been open but they’ve been almost empty, which has been good for us because we’ve never been in those places before and we’ve been able to explore those places.”

Suarez and his girlfriend begin their journey back to North Carolina towing his VW bus today.

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March 19 in NASCAR history: Austin Dillon steals Xfinity win at Auto Club in 2016

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On March 19, 2016, Kyle Busch looked well on his way to winning his fourth consecutive Xfinity Series race to begin the season.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver had led 133 of 200 laps in a race at Auto Club Speedway.

Then on Lap 200, moments after taking the white flag, Busch’s left-front tire gave out. That allowed teammate Daniel Suarez to speed by in Turn 2.

But Suarez’ time in the lead was short lived. His No. 19 Toyota had barely exited the turn when it ran out of gas.

With Suarez falling off the pace on the apron, Busch was able to drive his wounded car back to the point position entering Turn 3.

With Busch limping along, Austin Dillon‘s No. 3 Chevrolet pounced in Turn 4. Dillon darted to the outside of Busch and scrapped the wall as he navigated a small hole left by Busch.

Dillon drove away to lead his only lap of the race and to claim his seventh career Xfinity win.

“I was worried about our fuel, stayed focus on that the whole time,” Dillon told Fox Sports. “(Busch) tried to screw me there at the end, but didn’t work out for him, did it?”

Busch would bounce back to win the following week at Texas. He would go on to win 10 times in 17 Xfinity starts that year.

Also on this date:

1995: After a five-year break from the track, David Green wins in the Xfinity Series’ return to Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway.

2000: Ward Burton ended a five-year winless streak in the Cup Series with a victory at Darlington Raceway. It was his second of five career wins, all with Bill Davis Racing.

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.

What drivers said after Phoenix Cup race

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Sunday’s Cup race at Phoenix Raceway:

Joey Logano – winner: “Everybody learned something out there today just whether it’s racing, the way this traction compound is, the awesome sauce up there, how that worked out, played throughout the race.  There’s a lot learned, for sure. We learned that this No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Ford team is just stout and is not going to get beat if we have the opportunity. We tried everything we could to regain our track position and get control back of the race. I knew that last restart was going to be crazy. It was cool to see two Fords on the front row at the end of a race like that. This is a motor racetrack as much as we don’t think it is. Proud of the team effort today to make this one come.”

Kevin Harvick – finished 2nd: ”(Logano) just had control of the race. After we pitted there, I got stuck behind a couple of cars there, lost five or six spots. He got by and got control of the race. He got to restart where he wanted to. Our Jimmy John’s Ford was better, especially when we could put it in front of his. We just didn’t get the control of the race back there, and he was able to get by us on that restart where I got hung up.”

Kyle Busch – finished 3rd: “We unloaded and we weren’t very good, I didn’t think. I wasn’t too optimistic for the race and rightfully so. I think we probably had a sixth or seventh place car, but we had a lot of strategy there at the end with tires and all that sort of stuff – good restarts and being able to make time up on the bottom. Once you get that close to the front, you can’t make up that time anymore so that’s kind of where we lost our ground there. It’s good to come home third.

“(What did you think of the package for this track overall?) It was okay, just different. There at the end obviously, making up some good spots on the bottom when everybody would get bottled up there mid-pack, but once you get closer to the front, it’s hard to make up those spots anymore on the bottom anymore like we were. Just want to thank everybody on this Sport Clips Camry. The guys did a great job. We weren’t very good when we unloaded, we made a lot of ground, but still not enough ground as I would have wanted to race with some of the top guys. I felt like we were a fifth or sixth place car probably and we were able to come out with a third. Good for us with that effort. We need some points right now. We have to climb the ladder back and get back where we need to be.

“(Did you think you had a shot for the win late in the race?) I wouldn’t say we had a shot, we never had fire-off speed today. We were really slow to fire-off and later in the going we were getting better with longevity, but still we were a ways off. Felt like that when we unloaded and we made some ground on it and got it a heck of a lot better, but just couldn’t get it where we needed it there throughout the race. The 2 (Brad Keselowski) was probably the fastest car. The 22 (Joey Logano) was pretty quick and the 4 (Kevin Harvick) was pretty quick.”

Kyle Larson – finished 4th: “(Did you think you had a chance at the win?) I was just hoping that I could do something and maybe they’d mess up. 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.

“(Did you like the way the cars raced with the new aero package?) Yeah, I thought it was better racing than we had last year. Maybe they can work on it some more and get the racing even a little better, and have a great championship race to end our season.

“(How important was this run for the team?) It was good. The first handful of laps, I thought we weren’t as bad as I thought we would be. I just continued to get tight. I was thankful the cautions came out to allow us to work on it. We got it closer, but it still wasn’t where we needed to be. But we were close enough that we could race.”

Clint Bowyer – finished 5th: “As you go through this West Coast swing, you are lying in the bed you made. We saw that all the time and it really is true. You come out here and these cars are prepared before we get out here. Certainly we are looking forward to getting back home and reevaluating some things. I can’t seem to figure out how to get the front end to turn. There is a new mentality with (crew chief) John (Klausmeier) all his engineers. All in all to grind it out on Sunday when the money is on the line, it was a good effort and some momentum going into Atlanta, a fun race track for me that I really enjoy. The Mobil 1 Ford is beat up a little bit as I look over your shoulder there. Hell, that is what this track is all about.”

Kurt Busch – finished 6th: “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.

“With Larson fourth and us sixth, that’s better than what we ran all day. 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.

“(Did you like the car’s handling compared to last year’s package, and now with two top-10s in a row, how do you feel the team is progressing?) Yeah, for sure. 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. 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. There are things that we have to face ourselves with on what led to the lack of speed today. Even though we finished sixth, we’ll cash that in. But we have to learn from. 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.”

Chase Elliott – finished 7th: “We will build off of it for sure. Kevin (Harvick) was probably a tick- better than us I thought. But we’ll go to work. (You have the most stage points four races into the season. How important is that?) Stage wins are really important this time of year, so those are what you want. … It’s just something to build off of. Hopefully we can come back and we’ll be better.”

Aric Almirola – finished 8th: “That was a decent day for us. We scored stage points in both stages and ran competitively. I thought after practice we were a fourth to eighth-place car and quite honestly that is about where we ran all day. The pit crew did a good job there the second half of the race keeping us in the game. I am proud of that. We just continue to build. We just keep knocking off these top-10’s in a row after last weekend and this weekend. Then you slowly progress to trying to run in the top five and that is where you find yourself in position to win races. We need to continue to build on this.

“(What happened in the contact with Martin Truex Jr.?) Honestly it was just a mistake. We got down into Turn 1 there and he checked up slightly sooner than I expected him to and I was literally an inch or two off his bumper through the dogleg getting down into (Turn) 1. Just the slight delay from the time that he got on the brakes to when I got on the brakes, I got into the back of him and crashed him. We race around each other a lot, all day. We raced around each other and raced each other clean and I had fun racing with him. We swapped positions back and forth and never touched each other and then had that mistake right there. Certainly not intentional but that doesn’t help him.”

Cole Custer – finished 9th: “This was huge. It is a huge boost in our step to have a really solid day and fast Mustang. We overcame obstacles all weekend and hopefully we can continue to carry that all through the year. I think we get better every single race, so it is just a matter of continuing that and doing that every single weekend.”

William Byron – finished 10th: “I’m really proud of the effort by the team. We didn’t have the best execution, but we had pretty decent execution throughout the day. I hate that we got into the 6 (Ross Chastain) there. We had a little bit of damage, but overall, not bad. We fought really hard. A top 10 is good for how the day was overall. We’ll move on from it and go to Atlanta.

“We just have to work on our car turning. We just couldn’t really ever get the car to turn, especially on a short run. We just have to work on that. But it seemed like it was OK after that. There was a lot of tire fall off. For us, it really just created vibrations because we were wearing the right-front (tire) out so hard. I think, overall, it was getting better and closer to 2018. A top 10 is good from where we ran. I think we ran 12th to 17th all day and to finish 10th is a good result for us. I’m proud of that, for sure.”

Jimmie Johnson – finished 12th: “Definitely not the day we wanted but we fought like hell all day long. The guys had a great pitstops … we have a lot to build on. I am so proud of this team.”

Daniel Suarez – finished 21st: “The result looked really good, on paper. We just need to keep working to get more speed. The balance of the car wasn’t even close to what we wanted, so we have a lot of work to do. It was a crazy race, but that’s short-track racing. We did the best with what we had. We just need to keep working and find some more speed.”

MARTIN TRUEX JR. – finished 32nd: “(What happened with that incident?) I just got ran over. He ran into the back of me earlier getting into (turn) one. I hung on to it. These restarts are crazy, it’s fanned out. The 48 (Jimmie Johnson) was in front of me. I wasn’t sure if he was going to come up in front of me on the short chute or not. Then the 10 (Aric Almirola) ran into us. Can’t finish a race, it sucks.”

Tyler Reddick – finished 33rd: “We lost a tire there in (Turns) 1 and 2. I really don’t know what led to that. I don’t know if I just caught something on the race track or it just wasn’t meant to be. Our I Am Second Chevrolet was really, really good today. I just made a couple of mistakes there that cost us track position. I don’t know if that’s what ultimately would have kept us from cutting a tire, but we were in really good shape there and I just made a rookie mistake and fell back to the back half of the top 10 and from there we had our flat tire, and that was the end of our day unfortunately.”

Austin Dillon — finished 36th: “We started pretty far back in the field today at Phoenix Raceway but Justin Alexander and everyone on the No. 3 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Off Road Chevrolet ZL1 1LE team did a great job of putting a solid plan together to get us up front. We started off the race with a loose-handling Chevrolet but adjustments on pit road definitely helped and combined with strategy, we raced our way into the top 10. We had to make an unscheduled pit stop for tires after leaving a lug nut loose, which put us a lap down but we were running really fast and I knew that we would be able to get back on the lead lap. Unfortunately, we cut a tire and ended up in the wall, ending our day well before we wanted it to end. It’s a disappointing finish, but I’m really proud of the speed that Richard Childress Racing has had so far this year and I know we will rebound.”

Ryan Blaney – finished 37th: “From the car I couldn’t really see (what led to the wreck with Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski). A couple of us were three-wide. I was happy to be on the top. I thought we were going to roll the top pretty good through three and four there. It looks like (Hamlin) tried to send it in there below (Keselowski) and got loose and hit him and then overcorrected and got us. We got up in the dirt and we just ran right into the fence. Just an innocent bystander there. It sucks to have it end so early like that and have that happen so early in the race. I do really hate it for Menards and Tarkett and Ford. We didn’t even have a chance to work on our car. We weren’t great the first run but we made a big swing at it and we don’t know how that change was. It stinks when you are taken out like that. We will just go on to Atlanta and see what we can do.”

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JGR puts three cars in top 10 at Auto Club but work remains

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A week after it failed to place a car higher than 15th at Las Vegas, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota put three cars in the top 10, with Kyle Busch leading the way with a runner-up finish in the Auto Club 400.

But that didn’t keep David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, from noting that race winner Alex Bowman “schooled us.”

Bowman led 110 of 200 laps and won Stage 1 on the way to victory lane.

Meanwhile, Toyota cars led just once for a total of three laps. That was when Martin Truex Jr. – who started at the rear after failing pre-qualifying inspection three times – battled with Bowman in the middle of the final stage.

That’s after Truex led Toyota’s only lap last week at Las Vegas.

Busch only finished second after Ryan Blaney had to pit for a corded tire with three laps to go. After starting 17th, Busch placed 10th in Stage 1 and seventh in Stage 2.

His runner-up finish is his first top 10 of the season.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Busch told Fox. “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 (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.”

Behind Busch were Denny Hamlin in sixth and Erik Jones in 10th.

Hamlin was running in fourth on Lap 140 when his No. 11 Toyota brushed the wall exiting Turn 2 and he dropped to seventh.

“We’re still slow,” Hamlin said. “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.”

Jones’ top 10 is his best finish of the season after he placed 18th at Daytona and 23rd in Vegas.

He called the race “a step in the right direction.”

“I don’t think any of us really had race-winning speed,” Jones said. “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.”

After making his way to the front, Truex’s status as a contender ended with a slow pit stop on Lap 160 when a tire changer’s hand cramped up. He finished 14th.

Meanwhile, the rookie campaign of Leavine Family Racing’s Christopher Bell remains stuck in neutral after three races.

After wrecking out of the Daytona 500 and placing 33rd in Vegas following a crash, Bell was the only driver who failed to finish the race Sunday. His day ended on Lap 80 when he went to the garage after a bolt from another car struck a hole in the oil cooler on his No. 95 Toyota.

Gaunt Brothers Racing and Daniel Suarez had their best outing of the season  after failing to make the Daytona 500 and suffering a mechanical issue coming to the green flag in Vegas.

Suarez had an uneventful day and placed 28th, two laps down.