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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Martin Truex Jr. — If it’s not one thing, it’s another for him and his Joe Gibbs Racing team. He started at the rear for the second consecutive week but worked his way up to the front with the help of his pit crew, which had let him down the past couple of weeks. This time, contact from Aric Almirola put Truex in the wall. Almirola said the contact was unintentional but the damage was enough too ruin Truex’s race. He finished 32nd.
Chase Elliott — In one sense, his seventh-place finish was not satisfying considering how strong a car he had. On the other hand he still scored a top 10 after he had to pit for a loose wheel under green and later hit the wall, slowing his progress. But when one has among the strongest cars, one has to take advantage of the situation.
Denny Hamlin — Last November, Phoenix was magical with a win that put him into the Championship 4. This time, his contact with Brad Keselowski sent him into the wall. While Hamlin continued, the damage kept him from contending and he finished 20th.
Brandon Jones passes Kyle Busch to take Xfinity win at Phoenix
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.
Harrison Burton held off teammate Riley Herbst to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Auto Club Speedway and claimed his first career win in the series in his 12th start.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver led the final 19 laps under green and beat Herbst by less than half a second.
Burton, 19, is the son of former Cup driver and current NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton. He victory comes after he went winless last year as a full-time driver at Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series.
“So proud of our guys,” Burton told FS1. “All we’ve heard is we can’t do it, we can’t do it. We’ll never do what last year’s 20 (Christopher Bell) did. We’re off to a good start. It’s awesome, it feels so good to win. There’s times when you go through a little bit of a drought, you just doubt yourself. To get a win it feels so good, especially after last year, we struggled a little bit. … Once we moved up to the top at the end it was going to be really hard for (Herbst) to pass us. Just trying to be smart and not put it in the wall while leading.”
WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Justin Haley finished fifth after he spun from a flat right-rear tire as he tried to enter the pits on Lap 82. Haley’s tire was cut from contact with Anthony Alfredo … Alfredo finished sixth in his first career Xfinity start … Ryan Sieg earned his second straight top five. He has finished in the top 10 in all three races this year.
NOTABLE: Harrison Burton’s win came on Leap Day (Feb. 29). His uncle, Ward Burton, earned his first Xfinity win on Leap Day in 1992 at Rockingham … 20 Years, 2 Months, 12 Days is average age of the top-two finishers, third youngest top-two ever in the Xfinity.
WHAT’S NEXT: LS Tractor 200 at Phoenix Raceway at 4 p.m. ET March 7 on FS1
So fun to watch such mature racing from these youngsters in @NASCAR_Xfinity racing. Way to go first win @HBurtonRacing I know how proud Mom and Dad are!!