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Erik Jones ‘working through an extension’ with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Erik Jones told NBC Sports on Thursday that he and Joe Gibbs Racing are “working through an extension” for him to remain with the team and that he has “no plans to leave JGR.”

“I don’t think there’s any plans to change anything,” Jones said. “It’s just a matter of both sides agreeing to an agreement, which takes time. I imagine here soon we’ll have something ironed out.

“I think both sides are pretty set on staying on the path we got.”

The 22-year-old is in his third year in the Cup Series and his second at JGR after moving over from Furniture Row in 2017.

JGR did not respond to a request for comment on if 2019 was the last year on Jones’ contract.

Jones earned his first Cup win last July at Daytona, but hasn’t found victory lane this season. He’s coming off a fourth-place finish at Texas where he led 33 laps, his most since leading 64 laps in the same race last year.

“We’ve been pretty happy with the growth over the last couple of years, from my side and from the team’s side and what we’ve done and where we’re heading,” Jones said prior to the unveiling of his Craftsman ”Racing for a Miracle” car for this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I think we’re so close to breaking that little wall down of winning many races. We’re just right there, it seems, of making that big step to be consistent race winners. I feel like we’re right there. We’re close. Hopefully, here pretty soon it will be set in stone.”

The potential of a Jones’ extension raises questions about Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell‘s future in the Cup Series after his second Xfinity season with JGR.

The organization recently announced Kyle Busch had agreed to a multi-year contract extension with the team and sponsor Mars Inc.

Martin Truex Jr. is only in his first year with JGR after coming over from the defunct Furniture Row Racing.

Denny Hamlin, who has two wins through seven races including his second Daytona 500, announced a contract extension in early 2017. He said last year on the Dale Jr. Download that 2018 was the first year on “a good long-term contract” and “that goes for a while.”

Bell, who won a Xfinity Series rookie-record seven races in 2018, said last year he felt he was ready for Cup. 

In Cup, Toyota gives full support to just JGR and the one-car team of Leavine Family Racing, which replaced Furniture Row Racing when it closed.

But Leavine Family Racing felt it was prudent to go with veteran Matt DiBenedetto in the No. 95 in its first year with Toyota.

Team owner Bob Leavine said last year he planned to ask Toyota for an engine to be able to run Bell occasionally.

“That’s for them to decide,” Leavine said. “We’re just going to be available if they want to do it to put it all together and make it all work.”

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, that “for the moment there is no plan, there’s no consideration to put Christopher in one of those (Cup) cars (this year).”

Wilson cited the extra work needed to put a car together for Bell this season but also added that “you never say never.”

Kyle Busch signs contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Joe Gibbs Racing announced Thursday morning it has signed Kyle Busch to a contract extension. The team also announced an extension with sponsor Mars Inc. for it to serve as the primary sponsor of the No. 18 Toyota Camry.

No details of the multi-year extensions were revealed.

MORE: Kyle Busch ranked No. 1 in this week’s NBC Sports Power Rankings

“I’m proud and honored to continue to compete for Joe Gibbs Racing and Mars,” Busch said in a statement from the team “Racing for more than a decade with such an iconic team and sponsor has been incredible, and knowing that we can continue this winning relationship is very special.”

Busch has been with JGR since 2008. He has won 47 Cup races with the organization and the 2015 series title.

“Since the start of our partnership together in 2008, our relationship has been strong,” said team owner Joe Gibbs in a statement. “As a team owner, the hope is to find partners and drivers that help us grow as an organization, and Kyle Busch and Mars, Incorporated have done exactly that. We have one of the longest partnerships in all of sports, and that really speaks to the strength of the understanding and respect we have for one another.”

Cup starting lineup at Atlanta

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HAMPTON, Ga. – NASCAR’s new rules package will debut Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway with Aric Almirola leading the field to green.

Almirola won the pole Friday with a lap of 181.473 mph. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. starts second. Clint Bowyer is third, giving Ford the top three spots. Denny Hamlin (Toyota) and Daniel Suarez (Ford) complete the top five.

Tapered spacers will limit cars to 550 horsepower. A larger spoiler and other aero changes will increase downforce. The changes are intended to tighten the racing, but drivers note that the tire wear likely will spread the field out Sunday.

Some drivers didn’t have as good a day in qualifying. Kevin Harvick‘s car had steering issues and he qualified 18th. Team Penske’s drivers all will start outside the top 15: Brad Keselowski qualified 19th, Ryan Blaney 26th and reigning series champ Joey Logano 27th.

Kyle Busch will give up his sixth starting spot after going to a backup car. Busch wrecked early in Saturday’s final Cup practice.

Click here for full Cup starting lineup

Bump & Run: Should Michael McDowell have pushed fellow Ford at end of Daytona 500?

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Should Michael McDowell have been obligated to push fellow Ford driver Joey Logano on the last lap of the Daytona 500 instead of pushing Toyota driver Kyle Busch? Or are such beliefs pointless in the final laps?

Nate Ryan: He wasn’t obligated to push Logano, but it also seemed his best hope for getting to the front. It’s understandable why McDowell, who has soldiered through a decade of mostly getting knocked around while racing for midpack teams, was frustrated that the elite of the Cup Series seemed so dismissive of his No. 34 Ford in the draft. But if he was trying to send that message by declining to push Logano out of spite, it probably was a decision that doomed both their hopes of winning the Daytona 500. (Also worth noting: Front Row Motorsports might be a Ford team, but it isn’t supported by the manufacturer at nearly the same level as Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske, so the dynamics of the allegiances were different.)

Dustin Long: No. Manufacturers should not be second-guessing a driver for going with a different car make if the driver feels that is their best chance to win in the heat of the moment. And drivers should not assume that just because they are in the same camp they should expect help in such moments. 

Daniel McFadin: Absolutely not. At some point the emblem on your hood is meaningless when it comes to winning a race, especially the final laps of the Daytona 500. I’m fine with manufacturers collaborating through the early stages as a means of survival, but you have to be a tad naive to expect that on the last lap. McDowell’s in the right.

Jerry Bonkowski: No, McDowell was under no obligation to push Logano. Even with both being Ford drivers, McDowell chose to push the driver – in this case Kyle Busch – he thought might help McDowell earn a higher result. Now, once we start using tapered spacers at Daytona and Talladega, things could be much different. Time will tell.

Does Ross Chastain deserve a full-time ride with an elite team after his triple-header masterpiece of not tearing up his equipment at Daytona?

Nate Ryan: Yes, and it would benefit NASCAR nearly as much as Chastain if he gets one. Beyond being a special talent, the part-time watermelon farmer from Florida speaks his mind in an appealingly brash and candid manner. He is the type of personality that is needed, and it’s somewhat inexplicable he wasn’t scooped up by a bigger team when his Xfinity ride with Chip Ganassi Racing dissolved. Sponsors and teams should be cognizant of what he brings to the table.

Dustin Long: He may deserve a ride but the reality is money plays a key role on where some drivers go. Look, there are plenty of drivers racing at local tracks who might deserve a chance at one of NASCAR’s national series but they aren’t going to get it for one reason or another. The sport could be better by having Chastain in a top-flight ride as Nate notes but sometimes things don’t go as they should.

Daniel McFadin: Chastain deserved an elite ride after his performance with Chip Ganassi Racing in three Xfinity races last year. He got that ride until circumstances out of his control took it away. He’s still under contract with Ganassi, and I don’t think he’s going to be forgotten next year.

Jerry Bonkowski: I don’t know if I would use the word “deserve,” but Chastain has shown he has a great deal of talent that deserves to be recognized by higher-level teams. The problem is there is only a finite number of driver positions with teams in Cup, and as he has learned throughout his career, Cup is far too often a numbers game. Chastain will have to keep fighting the good fight, but sooner or later his time will come.

NASCAR Chairman Jim France asked drivers to work the bottom lane and put on a show before Sunday’s Daytona 500. Was the race evidence that they listened or just circumstantial coincidence?

Nate Ryan: As I wrote in the notes column, the only thing that ultimately matters is he said it. It’s impossible to say definitively if drivers did listen … but you could make a strong case it made an impact in the first stage.

Dustin Long: Coincidence. Competitors were talking after the Duels that they expected two lanes of racing in the 500 with a full 40-car field. Yes, it was a less-than subtle dig at the drivers but once in the heat of competition, a competitor isn’t going to focus on the requests of a series executive if they don’t feel it gives them a good chance to win.

Daniel McFadin: I originally was going to answer that I thought the stakes of the Daytona 500 meant the racing we saw was going to happen regardless. But then I remembered a good chunk of last year’s 500 was conducted in a single-file manner (with Ryan Blaney leading 118 laps). So it’s entirely possible France’s friendly prodding did the trick.

Jerry Bonkowski: I lean more towards circumstantial coincidence. Drivers will be the first to tell anyone that they race for themselves and their teams first and foremost, and then their sponsors. NASCAR officials are not – and should not – be in a position to tell drivers how to drive or where to drive on a track to put on any kind of a show. Fans are not stupid, they will quickly pick up if drivers are given NASCAR orders (as opposed to team orders, which they should listen to).

What do you expect to see this weekend at Atlanta with the new rules package?

Nate Ryan: A race that resembles most races at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The lower horsepower should keep cars closer, but surely the massive tire wear, coupled with a few long green-flag runs, will produce a familiar look.

Dustin Long: I don’t know. That will be the fun of it. Sure, the cars should be closer together for a few laps but tire wear likely will spread the field some. How much remains to be seen. I’m keeping an open mind on what will take place this weekend.

Daniel McFadin: I expect a somewhat uneventful first stage as the teams get their heads around the package before they drop the hammer in Stage 2 and beyond. I’m willing to say it will probably be the most interesting Atlanta race in a decade.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given what we saw at the Las Vegas test – and at a track very similar to Atlanta – I am very bullish that this could be one of the closest and best races we’ve seen at Atlanta in perhaps a decade or more. The only thing that could alter that is if there are weather issues. Then it could be a whole different ballgame, especially if drivers are in a race to not only beat their opponents, but also closing-in rainstorms.

Daytona Speedweeks ends with familiar sight: Denny Hamlin in Victory Lane

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It had been an odd Speedweeks for Denny Hamlin.

He had yet to win.

In three of the previous five Speedweeks, Hamlin had won some sort of race — Daytona 500, Clash or his qualifying race. Entering Sunday’s Daytona 500, things had not gone his way.

He was collected in the 17-car accident in the Clash. He didn’t have much of a chance in his qualifying race, the lone Toyota surrounded by Fords at the front. The result was a fourth-place finish.

But even though he hadn’t won, this had been a good week for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver.

“Not winning the Clash, not winning the Duel, maybe a little bit under the radar, but certainly we knew what we were capable of in the Duel,” Hamlin said Monday morning after his winning car was delivered to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America outside Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway. “We were kind of by ourselves in that pack of Fords. I knew my options were kind of limited of what I was going to be able to do but we put ourselves in position, nonetheless.

“We really didn’t have to do much to the car honestly. They came pretty prepared with a car that was handling well. It had minor issues in the race as far as handling was concerned. Looking at the competition, it looked like everyone had their hands full. It was just a lot different track conditions than what we had practiced in but we were pretty confident in past notes and through the races we had already run that we were going to be fine in the 500, especially this race ending at night, the track grips back up again. So you just have to survive to that point.”

Hamlin did, avoiding the crashes in the last 20 laps. He led going into the final restart with Kyle Busch and Joey Logano set to challenge when the green flag waved.

“That was the hair-raising moment because I knew they were experienced enough to get a run on me at the end,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “So that to me, the final green-white-checkered was me vs. them, how am I going to beat them?”

“The fortunate part for me, I knew that (Logano) was not going to be content with pushing (Busch). When (Logano) did (make a move), I really just started hitting the brake and backing up and making sure I didn’t get too big of a gap.”

Hamlin went on to score his second Daytona 500 victory in four years. He also is the winningest driver during Speedweeks since 2014, scoring five wins.

And this Speedweeks no longer was an odd one Sunday night for Hamlin as he celebrated a victory.

“Still, we’re in the motorhome last night after we come back and I just don’t believe it, the trophy is sitting right there on the counter,” Hamlin said. “It just didn’t seem real. Everything happened in slow motion. This one just has an entirely different feel to it.”