In the Fast Lane: Most Improved after Daytona

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Photo by: Robert Laberge

The 2018 NASCAR season kicked off to an incredibly start in the 60th running of The Great American Race at Daytona International Speedway.

An iconic number returned to Victory Lane after being pushed by another, while rookies and veterans alike were the victim of the Big One.

This week’s Top 5 most improved drivers earned their place by making impressive moves, improving their positions from a year ago, and leading laps and earning stage points.

No. 1 Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. – The Richard Petty Motorsports driver finished a career high second in his first start in the Daytona 500. Wallace, who started seventh, remained up front throughout the event and became the highest finishing African American in the event. Wendell Scott held the previous record for his 13th place finish in the 1966 Daytona 500.

Wallace pushed Austin Dillon to the win Sunday evening and avoided the Big One, despite contact with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin in overtime.

The RPM driver can take the momentum and confidence gained and apply it next weekend at Atlanta. Wallace has three Xfinity starts at the 1.5-mile track, his best finish is sixth from one year ago.

No. 2 Austin Dillon – Austin Dillon stated he doesn’t remember much about the 1998 Daytona 500, in which he stood in Victory Lane next to the late Dale Earnhardt.

The 27-year-old will have a reason to remember this year’s event in twenty years.

Dillon restarted fourth in an overtime finish, but gained the lead after making contact with Aric Almirola, which sent the Stewart-Haas Racing driver spinning.

The win is Dillon’s second in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Dillon now holds victories in two of the four “Crown Jewel” events. Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 in 2017.

Dillon has proven to excel under pressure of the famous No. 3 in recent years, earning eight top-5s and 18 top-10 finishes since 2016.

No. 3 Ryan Blaney – Ryan Blaney dominated by leading 118 laps and winning Stage 2. The newest driver of Team Penske came back to earn a seventh place finish despite sustaining damage in two multi-car wrecks.

Blaney heads into Atlanta, where he has an average finish of 21.5, as the points leader. Can he improve his results, and will it be enough to keep the points lead over teammate Joey Logano?

No. 4 Michael McDowell – Michael McDowell found a new home at Front Row Motorsports after losing his ride to Kasey Kahne at Leavine Family Racing, but he picked up right where he left off with another stellar performance at a restrictor plate track.

McDowell finished ninth in his 250th start. It is his second straight top-10 at Daytona and sixth top-10 of his career.

McDowell wasn’t in contention for the win at the end, but remained mid-pack for majority of the race. He was as high as fifth and secured stage points in Stage 1 (sixth) and Stage 2 (fifth).

No. 5 Chris Buescher – Chris Buescher last scored a top-5 in August of 2016, when he finished fifth at Bristol. The JTG-Daugherty Racing driver quietly climbed inside the top-5 Sunday to earn his best finish at the 2.5-mile track.

Buescher scored a top-10 during the 2017 Coca Zero 400. He sits ninth in the points standings, 25 points behind the points leader.

Notables: Justin Marks earned his best career finish at Daytona with 12th place, one lap down from the leaders. Marks has four MENCS starts and led his first lap in the series on Sunday.

William Byron finished 23rd after spinning on Lap 190. Byron was also involved in a 9-car incident on Lap 60 that ended the day for Erik Jones, Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, and two-time Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson.

Danica Patrick was the victim of a multi-car wreck on Lap 102 and finished in the 35th position. The race was Patrick’s last NASCAR event. She is scheduled to participate in the Indy 500 to bring her racing career to an end.

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Austin Dillon wins 60th Daytona 500

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Photo by: Robert Laberge 

Austin Dillon went from fourth to first during an overtime finish that resulted in the Richard Childress Racing driver celebrating his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory at Daytona International Speedway.

Dillon acquired the lead after making contact with the bumper of the No. 10 of Aric Almirola, who attempted to hold his position by moving in front of the No. 3 Dow Chevrolet.

“I did what I had to do there at the end,” Dillon said. “I hate it for the No. 10 (Almirola’s) guys. We had a run, and I stayed in the gas. It is what it is here at Daytona.”

“This is so awesome to take the No. 3 car back to Victory Lane. This one is for Dale Earnhardt Sr. and all those (Dale) Sr. fans. I love you guys.”

Dillon’s win comes in the same number the late Dale Earnhardt won the prestigious event 20 years ago.

“I said (after) my first win I couldn’t beat it, but this does. My grandfather has done everything for me. Everybody knows it. There is a lot of pressure on me to perform, because I’ve had a little bit of everything. But I like that pressure. The same with the No. 3. There is a lot of pressure behind that.”

Darrell Wallace Jr. finished second in his Daytona 500 debut racing for Richard Petty Motorsports. Wallace is the first African American driver to race full time in the Cup series in 47 years.

“I just try so hard to be successful at everything I do, and my family pushes me each and every day, and they might not even know it,” Wallace said. “But I just want to make them proud. Second is horrible, but it’s still a good day.”

Former Daytona 500 winners Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano finished third and fourth, respectively, while Chris Buescher rounded out the top-5.

Ryan Blaney finished seventh after a dominate performance. The Team Penske driver led 118 laps before being involved in a multi-car wreck on Lap 199. His teammate Brad Keselowski finished in the 32nd position after being involved in a seven-car crash on Lap 102.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series head to Atlanta on Sunday, February 25, 2018. Kevin Harvick beat Kyle Larson one year ago.

Who will win this year’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500? Tune into FOX next Sunday at 2 p.m. ET to find out.

3rd & 1: The Top 3

The 2017 Iron Bowl brought a shake up to the CFB Playoff Rankings, including a new team claiming the number one spot. While another climbs four places ahead of the SEC Championship.

No. 1 Clemson – The Clemson Tigers dominated yet again on the road in a 34-10 victory over South Carolina. The, then No. 4, team went halfway through the first quarter before scoring, but did so in a telling fashion.

Ryan Carter intercepted and returned for 12-yards to put Clemson on the board. Tavien Feaster added another seven points to the board early in the second, while Hunter Renfrow had a pair of touchdowns, including a 61-yard pass from quarterback Kelly Bryant.

The feature was the third time in Renfrow’s college football career that he collected multiple touchdowns within a single game.

No. 2 Auburn – The annual match-up versus Alabama brought a surprise to many fans of the 16-time National Championship team. Auburn University dominated the Crimson Tide and brought down the No. 1 team for the second time within 2 weeks.

The momentum and tone of the game was established early on when Nate Craig-Myers reached the end zone. Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy answered it in the second quarter from a 36-yard pass, the best scoring-drive play in the game from the Crimson Tide.

Alabama kept Auburn from scoring a touchdown in the second, but they still added points with a 33-yard field goal kick from Daniel Carlson.

After Alabama started the second half with a touchdown from Bo Scarbrough, the rest of the game belonged to the Tigers.

Carlson completed a 44-yard field goal, while Kerryon Johnson and Jarrett Stidham earned a 1-yard run and 16-yard run, respectively.

No. 3 Oklahoma – The Sooners played West Virginia with home advantage, but that didn’t stop the Mountaineers from putting up a fight to the finish.

It took Oklahoma just two plays before they reached the end zone and put them on the scoreboard. West Virginia settled for a 28-yard field goal before Baker Mayfield passed for 8-yards to CeeDee Lamb.

West Virginia reached the end zone in the second quarter, but it was Oklahoma that had the advantage at the half – with touchdowns coming from Rodney Anderson and Mark Andrews. A field goal sent Oklahoma into half time with a 35-point advantage.

The third quarter brought the two teams exchanging touchdowns. West Virginia started early with a 15-yard run by Kennedy McKoy. It took Oklahoma six plays to answer, ending with an 18-yard pass to Grant Calcaterra.

McKoy grabbed his second touchdown of the afternoon to make it 24-59, but the Sooners extended their lead with a 46-yard pass to Myles Tease from Kyler Murray.

West Virginia scored the lone touchdown in the fourth quarter, but it was not enough to gain momentum at the Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.

Truex wins at Homestead for Championship

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Photo by: Jared C. Tilton

Martin Truex Jr. didn’t think about what being a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion would feel like prior to the Ford EcoBoost 400. He didn’t think about it during Sunday’s event either.

It wasn’t until the Furniture Row Racing crossed the finish line for the eighth time this season that the 37-year-old got emotional.

“I couldn’t even talk,” he said. “I was a wreck thinking about all the tough days, the bad days, the times where I thought my career was over with, the times when I didn’t think anyone believed in me. But the guys who mattered did — my fans, my family and then when I got with this team.

“They are unbelievable and they resurrected my career and made me a champion.”

Despite being the team to beat throughout the 2017 season the No. 78 team was looked at as the underdog, looking to defeat the odds for a storybook-type ending.

And they did. Time after time after time. The result ending with Truex earning his first career MENCS championship with eight wins, 19 top-5s, and 26 top-10 finishes.

“Honestly, it’s just a lot of love on our team,” said (crew chief) Cole Pearn. “We all believe in each other and believe if you live your lives right, good things will come. We’ve been together a long time and we battle like brothers. All I did the last few laps was think of my friend Jake and his family.

“It’s just unbelievable we’ve been able to do this. I’m still speechless about it. I just hope that what comes out of this are accolades for (what) an unbelievably good driver Martin is.”

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Photo by: Brian Lawdermilk

Sherry Pollex, Truex’s longtime girlfriend, reaffirmed that statement.

“I told him that’s why you never give up, because these guys are so cool,” Pollex said. “That’s been our motto all along, ever since I started my cancer battle. We are never going to give up and we didn’t.”

The conclusion of the finale at Homestead potentially marked the ending of three full-time Cup drivers.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who announced his retirement in April, finished 25th in his last race. The 14-time winner of the Most Popular Driver award ends with 26 career wins, including two victories of the Daytona 500 (2004, 2014).

Matt Kenseth, who is being replaced at Joe Gibbs Racing by Erik Jones, finished eighth. Kenseth doesn’t have a ride for 2018 and has stated he is not actively looking, however he will not call it a retirement.

Danica Patrick finished 37th in a 39-car field in what will be her second-to-last start. Patrick will race in the 2018 Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 before calling it quits.

Kyle Busch finished second to Truex, followed by Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, and Chase Elliott. Brad Keselowski finished seventh.

Kevin Harvick Earns Texas Victory

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Photo by: Jonathan Ferrey

Kevin Harvick became “The Closer” once again for the second time this season, passing Martin Truex Jr. in the final laps at Texas Motor Speedway to earn his first career win at the 1.5-mile track.

Harvick’s 37th career victory guarantees him a chance to battle for the 2017 championship at Homestead in two weeks.

“This feels so good,” Harvick said, “We have been qualifying well here and racing well ever since I have been at Stewart-Haas Racing and just never got it to work out to go to Victory Lane. Today we had to earn it. To be able to pass the 78 car for the win is something that is huge for our confidence and team knowing we need to go to another 1.5 mile (track) at Homestead to race for the championship.”

Truex finished second after leading 107 of 334 laps, but the Furniture Row Racing driver still has reason to celebrate. Truex secured his way into the Championship 4 based on points, joining Harvick and Kyle Busch in the final round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

“At the start of the race, our car wasn’t very good,” Truex said. “Track position was a big part of this race. We fought the car. We fought track position. We got the lead, led some laps. Ultimately, at the end, we weren’t as good as we needed to be to win.”

“A little disappointed to come up short, but to clinch a spot in Miami is unbelievable. Definitely got the job done today and came here and did what we needed to do.”

Matt Kenseth earned his first top-5 finish since Loudon in September, one day after saying that he will likely step away from Cup full-time at season’s end. He led 29 laps before finishing fourth.

Kyle Larson hit the wall and ended up in flames on Lap 282. The incident was the driver’s third weekend in a row which ended in finishes of 37th or worse.

Last week’s winner and Brad Keselowski were also faced with trouble on the first lap of the event. The two made contact and were forced to pit to access damages. Keselowski rebounded and finished fifth, while Busch had additional issues on Lap 275. He finished in the 19th position.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series head to Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, November 12th to set the field for the Championship 4.

Five different drivers (Keselowski, Hamlin, Blaney, Elliott, and Johnson) are left with only one spot available. Who will advance? Find out on November 12th at 2:30 p.m ET on the NBC Sports Network.

3rd & 1: The Top 3

This week’s Top 3 features a new team at #1 while another proves their worth at week 10.

No. 1 Georgia – The Bulldogs have taken the top spot over Alabama, who have been #1 since the start of season, after a stellar performance against Florida.

Georgia dominated the first half against the Gators, scoring 21 points within the first quarter. Nick Chubb started with a 6-yard run and Javon Wims followed shortly after with a 17-yard pass.

While the Gators prevented Georgia from scoring in the second, Sony Michel followed his first quarter touchdown up with another.

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm went 4 for 7 in 101 yards, allowing one interception within 60 minutes.

Georgia could use some improvements on their passing game, but nothing this season has been a cause for a sense of urgency. Georgia has proven it can get by on their own and it seems to be working.

No. 2 Alabama – Alabama’s drop this week is not a surprise, but they’ve got much more room for improvements with what they showed two weeks ago against Tennessee.

Alabama doesn’t have any problems with passing or running game like other teams, however their own worst enemy always ends up being themselves. Alabama went 5 for 38 in penalties against the Volunteers 1 in 10.

No. 3 Notre Dame – Notre Dame’s solid performance against NC State gives them a six position gain and in the Top 3.

Notre Dame’s start wasn’t a good one with a blocked punt return ending in a touchdown by their opponent, but the Fighting Irish quickly turned things around.

Durham Smythe put Notre Dame on the board with a 25 yard pass. After giving up a 15 yard pass touchdown to NC State’s Kevin Harmon, Notre Dame controlled the rest of the game in scoring.

Cornerback Julian Love returned an interception for 69 yards with a touchdown, while Josh Adams rushed for 202 yards. Brandon Wimbush went 10 for 19 in 104 yards.

The Fighting Irish have consistently improved these last few weeks. Their performances against ranked teams have landed them here. How will they fair going forward? They face Wake Forest to home on November 4th to put their skills to the test.

Kyle Busch Wins at Martinsville in Overtime

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Photo by: Jared C. Tilton

Kyle Busch won for the fifth time this season and the crowd booed, but not for the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.

The chants were for Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin was running second with three laps to go when he put the nose of his Toyota to the back of the No. 24 of Chase Elliott, spinning the driver and stripping him of his first career win.

The incident sent the First Data 500 into overtime and ended after a multi-car incident on the frontstrech. Busch beat Martin Truex Jr. to the line by .141 seconds, for the second time at “The Paperclip” and the 43rd time of his career.

The win earns Busch a place in the Final 4 for the third straight year.

“I wanted to get a better restart, pinch Denny down a little bit, but it actually kind of worked out better for me that he got ahead a little bit, gave me a gap,” Busch said. “I got down (to the inside lane), and he got into Turn 3 and just pushed up the race track and I knew I had to plug that hole right away cause I was just going to get beat on from behind,

“So I got up in there and rooted him out of the way a little bit, and we drag-raced down the front straightaway and deep into (Turn) 1, I just wheel-hopped, chattered the rear tires and it was sideways getting in there trying to calm it down with the brakes and everything else. Was able to get through there luckily somehow – I don’t know how – and beat Truex off of (Turn) 4 back to the start/finish line.”

Brad Keselowski finished fourth after leading 108 laps and securing both stage wins. Keselowski fell short of a victory after contact with Elliott sent the Team Penske driver up the track and out of contention for the win in the Round of 8.

Joey Logano finished in the 24th position after a tire rub sent the driver of the No. 22 spinning on Lap 492.

Elliott obtained the lead on the restart, but was pumped from behind by the No. 11 FedEx Walgreen’s Toyota of Hamlin.

Elliott showed his displeasure by engaging in a heated discussion with Hamlin on the backstretch, but remained poised in his remarks about the incident.

“I got punted from behind and wrecked in Turn 3 leading the race,” Elliott said. “I don’t know what his problem was. It was unnecessary. I hadn’t raced him dirty all day long. There was no reason for that, and he comes over and talks to me a second ago and tells me he had somebody pushing him into Turn 3.

“I thought that was funny, because there was nobody within two car lengths of him into Turn 3 behind myself. I don’t know what the deal was, but it is so disappointing. We had the best car I’ve ever had here at Martinsville. And had an opportunity to go straight to Homestead and because of him, we don’t.”

Elliott sits eighth in the Playoff standings, 90 points behind the leader and 26 behind Kevin Harvick, who holds the last seed into the Final 4 at Homestead.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series head to Texas Motor Speedway on November 5th. Who will be the next to earn their chance at the 2017 championship? Will a non-playoff driver play spoiler?

Find out November 5, 2017 at 2 p.m ET on the NBC Sports Network.