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Racing eyes on Phoenix as Cindric claims victory in Xfinity race

By David Brandt

AP Sports Writer

AVONDALE, Ariz. — The big story at Phoenix Raceway one year ago was the remarkable recovery of veteran driver Ryan Newman, who strolled around the infield sipping a soft drink just weeks after a horrific crash in the Daytona 500 had everyone fearing the worst.

It was an entertaining race on a beautiful Sunday afternoon with Joey Logano holding off Kevin Harvick for his second win of the season. Kyle Larson finished fourth, continuing his rise with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Then came COVID-19, and everything in auto racing — and the world — changed.

“Gosh, it doesn’t feel like a year ago,” driver Ryan Blaney said.

After 12 long months, it’ll be a much quieter scene for this year’s spring race in the desert, with a smaller crowd, masks, social distancing and everything else that’s been deemed necessary for sports to continue during a pandemic. It’s a compromise that’s become somewhat normal, even if it’s less than ideal.

“I miss a lot,” Logano said. “Obviously, the fans not being at the racetrack, the energy that they bring is second to none, so that quietness is awful. I like hearing the cheering, the booing and everything in between. I like that. I like having our sponsors at the racetrack and people walking through the garage thinking it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever seen when they see these cars up close.”

NASCAR’s season was paused for two months after Logano’s win at Phoenix.

The sport was one of the first in the nation to return on May 17 in Darlington, South Carolina, during a one-day event in front of no fans.

The slow march to normalcy continues in Phoenix.

“Hopefully, we’re making progress on this thing of getting the world healthy again, but it’s changed the way that our sport has operated,” Blaney said. “It’s changed the way everything has operated, from sports to businesses and things like that, and I’m looking forward to the day we can all get healthy again and put this all behind us and get back to normal life.”

Cindric holds on in final restart to claim victory in Xfinity race

Austin Cindric used a dominant performance and a good restart with two laps left Saturday for his second straight victory at Phoenix Raceway.

Cindric won again on the track where he captured his first NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in November. He led 119 of 200 laps in the No. 22 Ford and was never far from the front.

Ty Gibbs, the 18-year-old who won in his first Xfinity start on the road course at Daytona last month, was second after starting 27th. Gibbs — who is the grandson of three-time Super Bowl winner Joe Gibbs and part of Joe Gibbs Racing — also won the ARCA race Friday night.

Justin Allgaier gave Cindric a hard run on the final restart, pulling to the outside for the pass, but he got too close to the wall, lost traction and Cindric was able to shoot by and win with room to spare.

Larson: Congratulations from Bubba Wallace special

Little did anyone know that Larson’s fourth-place finish last year in Phoenix would be his last race with Chip Ganassi Racing.

The driver’s use of a racial slur while participating in an online race last April cost him his job, his reputation and his ability to attract the corporations that fund a race team. Larson wasn’t sure he’d race in NASCAR again until Rick Hendrick took a chance on a him.

Last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Larson raced to his first NASCAR victory since he was reinstated from a nearly yearlong suspension. He was hired by Hendrick Motorsports when NASCAR said the suspension would lift at the start of this year.

Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only Black fulltime driver, was one of the first competitors to congratulate Larson. “It meant a lot for Bubba to come to victory lane,” Larson said. “He’s always believed in me. That was special.”

Homecoming for McDowell

Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell will be racing close to his hometown of Glendale, Arizona, where he grew up racing karts before moving to North Carolina to pursue his NASCAR dreams.

The 36-year-old McDowell was an unlikely Daytona winner, earning his first Cup victory in his 358th start. McDowell returned to his old kart track in Glendale on Thursday, where he raced under the lights against local kids aged 7 to 16. He signed autographs and brought his Daytona 500 trophy for fans to check out.

Keep it cool

Last year’s spring race in Phoenix was a hot one, with temperatures pushing close to 90 degrees.

Today’s race should be quite a bit cooler, with a high around 70.

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