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Changes abound as NASCAR season opens at Daytona

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, 5:42 p.m.
Daniel Suarez (41) drives to the track during NASCAR auto race practice at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Daniel Suarez (41) drives to the track during NASCAR auto race practice at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Chase Elliott took blame for the first crash of NASCAR’s new season on a blustery day at Daytona International Speedway that was shortened by rain.

Martin Truex Jr. topped the speed chart in his debut for Joe Gibbs Racing, and Bubba Wallace jumped to the top of Saturday’s second session before weather brought an early end to NASCAR’s Cup Series practice.

Rosters were needed to track all the offseason changes and new faces preparing for the season-opening Daytona 500.

Kurt Busch, winner of the Daytona 500 just two years ago, now drives for Fox Chapel native Chip Ganassi’s racing team in Jamie McMurray’s old seat. McMurray, the 2010 Daytona 500 winner, will close his career next Sunday with one last appearance in “The Great American Race.”

Daniel Suarez got Busch’s old seat at Stewart-Haas Racing, and Suarez was available only because Gibbs released him to make room for Truex. Richard Childress Racing hired Daniel Hemric to replace Ryan Newman in a rebranded No. 8.

Newman moved to Roush Fenway Racing, and his first stint in his new ride ended in a multi-car accident less than an hour into opening day. Elliott said he crowded Newman in traffic for Sunday’s exhibition race and caused the crash.

He even apologized to rival teams for tearing up equipment.

“It looks like I just messed up. It happens,” Elliott said.

The accident caused enough damage to force Elliott and Denny Hamlin into backup cars for Sunday’s all-star event.

Hamlin was on track only to test his car in traffic, a move that ended in crumpled sheet metal but one he defended as the right decision.

“I’m a huge advocate of going out there in the pack,” Hamlin said. “These things happen … really no fault of anyone.”

Two Daytona 500 qualifying practices were largely uneventful as teams gauged the speed and handling of their cars before Sunday’s time trials. There are six drivers vying for four “open” spots in the Daytona 500 field, raising qualifying stakes.

Ryan Truex is trying to join his brother in the Daytona 500 field, but his Tommy Baldwin Racing team needed to borrow a hauler to get to the track. TBR is easing back into fulltime racing, and an 18-wheeler isn’t part of the initial budget.

Ross Chastain is trying to bounce back from a rollercoaster offseason by racing in his first Daytona 500. Although there’s a car in the Daytona garage for him, there’s a possibility J.J. Yeley could buy the seat from under Chastain because Yeley has sponsorship money and no ride.

Chastain got the break of his career in November when sponsor DC Solar pushed Chip Ganassi to hire Chastain for a full season in the Xfinity Series. But the FBI raided DC Solar’s headquarters about a month after Chastain was hired. The sponsor has since filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, prompting Ganassi to shutter the Xfinity team.

Chastain, an eighth-generation Florida watermelon farmer, parceled together a schedule with smaller teams and was in the car Saturday practicing for the Daytona 500. A driver change can be made all the way up until the Feb. 17 race, but Chastain is focused only on what he can control.

“Walking into the cup garage and seeing a racecar with my name on the roof being prepared to run the Daytona 500 is something I’ll never forget,” Chastain posted on social media. He later added a picture of his car headed onto the track.

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