Dan Beaver

I have been NASCAR.com's fantasy racing expert for nearly a decade, with other marquee clients such as NBC/RotoWorld, Yahoo! Sports and Games, Fox Sports, and NASCAR Scene / Scene Daily sprinkled throughout my career.

Good Sam 500 almost ends as it started with Joe Gibbs Racing up front

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Joe Gibbs Racing led the Good Sam 500 field to the green with a sweep of the top three positions. The team would have finished that way as well — if not for Kevin Harvick’s win.

Harvick had the field covered at Phoenix International Raceway like he has in recent years until a caution came out on lap 308 after Kasey Kahne blew a tire and slammed the Turn 3 wall.

Carl Edwards was running third behind Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. when the caution waved and he was the first driver to hit pit road. The entire field followed with the exception of Austin Dillon. Earnhardt stayed out along with Harvick and Austin Dillon. A two-tire stop put Edwards back on track in fourth.

Leading the race, Harvick had his choice of lanes and took to the outside. Edwards was behind in the second row. “Caution came out; Dave rolled the dice and we got a shot at it,” Edwards said of crew chief Dave Rogers. “We made them work for it and that’s more than we’ve been able to do the last few times.”

Edwards got to Harvick’s rear bumper in Turn 3 on the final lap and knew that his best chance to win  was to move Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet out of the way.

“I wish it would have worked out a little bit differently, but it was a good race,” Edwards said. “I ran into him about as hard as I thought I could without wrecking him and it ended up being a drag race.”

Two of Edwards’ teammates followed him across the line. Denny Hamlin finished third with Kyle Busch fourth.

Edwards spent the majority of his laps inside the top 10, but Hamlin and Busch had major obstacles to overcome.

Hamlin‘s team lost control of a tire on a Lap 53 caution and he was forced to the back of the longest line on that restart. He struggled in heavy traffic and it took 80 laps to climb back into the top 15 and 125 laps to crack the top 10.

Losing the track position was pivotal, but Hamlin still gave the pit crew credit for his top-five finish.

“I thought we had a car that could win,” he said. “We really did a good job back there — pit crew did a good job down the stretch. So, overall I’m very proud of our program. We’ve really come a long way on this race track.”

Busch had multiple mistakes during a Lap 163 pit stop. He overshot his pits and when he backed up he was too close to the wall. This caused him to drop from second entering the pits to 18th on the restart.

“We just can’t quite keep up as good as those guys can on the long side of the run, so that’s kind of where we lost it today,” Busch said. “I also screwed us up a little bit on pit road, but we were at least able to overcome that.”

“It was great to get back into position (to win),” Busch added. “Barring some different conditions there on the restart with Kevin and the two-tire cars ahead of me, I had to restart fifth. Maybe if I had started fourth I’d had a shot at it. Good job for Carl there; a valiant effort overall. A good job for JGR.”

Matt Kenseth finished seventh, which was his first top-10 of the season and only his second since last fall’s race at Dover International Speedway.

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Teamwork key to Joe Gibbs Racing recent success at Phoenix

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Last spring in the CampingWorld.com 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, Joe Gibbs Racing struggled. The organization’s best finish was a modest 13th by Carl Edwards.

In that race, Matt Kenseth finished 16th, David Ragan (driving in relief of the injured Kyle Busch) finished 18th, and Denny Hamlin finished 23rd. A frustrated Hamlin told NBC Sports after that race: “All of our cars suck right now.”

“When I came over to JGR, it kind of shocked me how I didn’t realize how much JGR had struggled at Phoenix,” Edwards said Friday at PIR.

Trouble can be a catalyst for improvement, and last spring’s Phoenix race was a big part of the reason for the domination of Gibbs later in the season.

“Everyone worked really hard and I think you saw from, I guess it must have been from this point on, it was a lot of forward momentum,” Edwards said. “A lot of improvement at Joe Gibbs Racing. I think we won with basically every package that NASCAR presented last year. We won at all sorts of types of tracks. But, overall I just think it’s just the team effort.”

Added Busch, who rallied from his season-opening injury to win his first career Sprint Cup championship: “We had to redo our sim model and stuff like that. But also getting the crew chiefs a little more zoned in around the package of what the shop engineers wanted us to run and them to kind of understand all that. I think it’s been better since. That’s kind of a useful thing for sure. It’s been better, and we’ve learned, and I guess we’re still kind of on that path.”

By the time the series returned to PIR in November, Edwards had a shot at winning before rain drenched the track. He was running fourth when half of the field decided to pit and other half stayed out. The race did not go green again and he finished 12th.

Edwards spent about 85 percent of the fall race inside the top five. Busch raced inside the top 10 for all but three laps and there were similar performances by Hamlin and Erik Jones, who was standing in for Kenseth while the regular driver of the No. 20 sat out a two-race suspension.

“I was also really proud of how we finished the year, and if it weren’t for that rain, I’d like to think that we’d have had a shot at competing for the championship there at Homestead,” Edwards said. ”So, yeah, as bad as it was, it also reminded me that ‘Hey, we were that close to getting a championship.”

Ultimately, it was teamwork that created this change in direction.

“I saw the attitude heading to Phoenix last year (fall) and it was all hands on deck and that was what was pretty interesting when we sat in meetings,” Edwards said. “It was, ‘Hey, we have to fix what’s wrong. We have to get faster.’ And, it’s pretty intense.

Busch agreed that Joe Gibbs Racing is working the way multi-car teams should.

“There’s some things that are the same and there’s definitely some things that are different,” Busch said regarding the similar setups on all JGR cars. “I think you’re going to have that every week unless someone just feels like they’re really off like us last week.

“We were really off for a while there, so we just bolted in (Kenseth’s setup) and it seemed to be pretty good for us in the race.”

Busch finished fourth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and was leading with six laps to go.

The addition of an alliance with the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team and Martin Truex Jr. also has been instrumental in the progress.

“When you have five crew chiefs going at the race car five different ways and learning as it goes along, you learn different things quicker,” Busch said.

“I definitely feel like the 78 has been a bit of a help this year. They’ve been doing a good job with us and giving some good information. There was some things in Atlanta we actually took from the 78 and helped us run better.”

The formula is working. The Gibbs team swept the top three positions in qualification on Friday with Busch on the pole, Edwards second, and Hamlin third. Kenseth is only three positions back in sixth and Truex will line up directly behind him in eighth.

Kyle Busch wins Phoenix pole with teammate Carl Edwards second

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kyle Busch won the pole for the Good Sam 500 with a speed of 138.387 mph. It’s his first pole of the season and 18th of his career.

“I had a little bit of an itch, but I wasn’t all that confident,” Busch said. “I wasn’t going out there and strutting my stuff like I was going to sit on the pole. I was trying to get a good lap in, get a good effort in, get a good pit selection, and so it all transpired to be a good day.”

Carl Edwards qualified second, almost a mile per hour slower with a speed of 137.515 mph.

“That was my warmup lap,” Edwards said. “The second one was going to be better, but they threw the caution.”

When he was informed of how fast Busch went, he reconsidered. “They told me the first lap was the fastest one. I don’t know if I could have run faster.”

The session was not without drama.

Kasey Kahne ended the first session with the third-fastest time of 137.190 mph, but smoke from an EFI (electronic fuel injection) failure sent him to the garage. Kahne shut off the engine, but the car kept running. He will be credited with qualifying 24th but will drop to the back after the team replaces the engine.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed advancing to the second round for the first time since last fall at Richmond. His lap of 135.527 mph was the 26th best. Earnhardt started 29th at Richmond and finished fifth.

The caution alluded to by Edwards was for Jimmie Johnson. He was on his second lap after posting a speed of 137.174 mph when he slammed the wall.

“It was dragging the car through the center somewhat; then it locked up and went straight,” Johnson said after he was released from the infield care center. “Something certainly happened. We just don’t know what caused it at this point.”

PHX Qualifying

PHX Qual Page 22

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Carl Edwards returns to Phoenix, site of his first asphalt race

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Carl Edwards ran his first pavement race in 2001, and it came at Phoenix International Raceway. The car was different than what he pilots now, but the thrill was the same.

Edwards’ first start came in a USAC Silver Crown car, and it was terrifying.

“I remember the first lap here,” Edwards said Friday. “It was amazing. Petrifying, really, is probably the simplest way to describe it.”

“You run down into Turn 1 in a Silver Crown car that some idiot would set up — which would be me — and have no clue what would happen. And then you go screaming down the backstretch.”

Edwards finished 19th in that race behind winner Paul White and one spot behind fellow NASCAR driver J.J. Yeley. Kasey Kahne was also in that field of 30 cars and narrowly missed the top 10 in 11th.

“Anybody who’s driven a Silver Crown car here knows what I’m talking about,” Edwards said. “It feels like you are sitting in a chair with a rocket strapped to it. You’re screaming down the backstretch, and you’re shaking, and your head’s buffeting in the wind.”

But there was one good outcome for Edwards: He developed a taste for paved racing.

“It was a turning point in my career,” he said.

Edwards’ first Sprint Cup start here came three years later, and he did not fare much better. He finished 37th in the November 2004 race at Phoenix.

Edwards ran the sixth-fastest lap in the first practice session for Sunday’s Good Sam 500. He has two wins on the 1-mile oval, with the most recent coming in six races ago.

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Ryan Blaney has lofty but realistic Phoenix expectations

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Ryan Blaney said the objective is simple at Phoenix International Raceway.

“The main goal is to win,” the Sprint Cup rookie said Friday after practice. “That’s every team’s goal.”

But Blaney’s expectations are a little more realistic.

“I care about trying to run like we did at Las Vegas,” he said. He finished sixth at Las Vegas for his first top-10 finish of the year and the third of his career.

“Anytime you have a good run the previous week, it gives you a lot of momentum for the next week. Luckily for us we had a good run at Vegas after a bad run at Atlanta,” said Blaney, who was on track for a top-15 finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway until he was involved in a last-lap accident.

Scoring top-10s is the key for the Wood Brothers Racing team, which lacks a charter in NASCAR’s new system and is not guaranteed a starting spot each weekend.

Strong finishes build confidence. A top-10 finish also proves helpful in the battle for Rookie of the Year.

Last week, both Blaney and Chase Elliott ran among the top 10 all day, but a late-race crash cost Elliott a shot at joining Blaney in the top 10.

“It was unfortunate to see what happened to him at Las Vegas,” Blaney said. “He had a really good car, and we were right next to each other all race really. You don’t ever want to see that. I don’t ever want to see my buddies get in wrecks, even if you are competing with them.”

Wins come after strong runs and pushing too hard causes problems such as Blaney experienced at Atlanta.

“These Cup cars are awfully tricky,” he said. “I caught myself being really greedy like you could be in a Truck, so you have to be really careful over there in that turn. It’s really just a long, flat slippery corner.

“In these you can’t be as aggressive, so it took me a few laps to try and get used to and pull the reigns back a little bit.

“I don’t look at the rookie points stuff really at all, just like I don’t look at the Chase stuff right now. I’m sure later on in the season I might pay attention to that, but right now we are focusing on having runs like we had last week.”