Sprint Cup

NASCAR Sprint Cup News Wire
  • Final-round surge puts Kenseth on Richmond pole
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, April 28, 2017

    By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

    • Distributed by The Sports Xchange

      RICHMOND, Va. -- Matt Kenseth will not have to come from the middle of nowhere, as he did last Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. In that race, he started 22nd, charged toward the front in the closing laps and finished fourth.

      Quite the contrary. In Sunday's Toyota Owners 400 (on FOX at 2 p.m. ET) at Richmond International Raceway, Kenseth will lead the field to the green flag in the ninth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season after winning the pole during Friday's knockout qualifying session.

      Kenseth posted a lap at 121.076 mph (22.300 seconds) to edge Ryan Blaney (120.854 mph) for the top starting spot by .041 seconds. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota claimed his first Coors Light Pole Award of the season, his second at Richmond and the 19th of his career.

      Kenseth was fast enough to make the cut for the first two rounds despite running a single lap in each, and the tire conservation paid off in the money round.

      "We had enough speed in our Circle K Toyota Camry that we only had to do one lap each of the first two rounds to get us into the third round, and we improved a little bit the second lap (in the final round)," he said. "It was a good qualifying effort for us. Feels good to be on the pole."

      Kenseth is 20th in points after bottom-five finishes at Daytona, Phoenix and Fontana, and qualifying rainouts hurt him at Bristol and Martinsville, where he had to start mid-pack on owner points.

      "This year has not been a good year for us, obviously, so far," Kenseth said. "We finished strong at Bristol, but we didn't get to qualify because of the rain, and that put us in the middle of the pack -- there and Martinsville.

      "We haven't been getting any stage points. We're buried in the points back there and we finally got a decent finish last week, so hopefully this week we can start up front, stay up front and hopefully collect some of the stage points. But most importantly we're in the mix for a win at the end of the day."

      Martin Truex Jr. (120.681 mph) will start third, followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (120.471 mph) and Joey Logano (120.380 mph).

      It was the third second-place qualifying effort of the season for Blaney, who also put the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford on the front row at Phoenix and Texas.

      "We weren't great the first round but kept getting steps better each round, which we've done a really good job of this year," Blaney said. "I thought that's where we struggled a lot last year. We didn't improve last year, we would go backwards. This year we're improving round-to-round.

      "It's just communication and knowing what we need to change in our car. That's something to be proud of. That's a lot of second starts now. I really want to race the Clash at Daytona (the season-opening exhibition race primarily for pole winners). That's my biggest thing right now. It's upsetting me that we can't get a pole. I think our Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion is good -- we'll find out in race trim."

      Both Kenseth and Blaney saved their fastest laps for the final round. The same couldn't be said of Logano, who ran the fastest lap of the afternoon (121.468 mph) in the second round but couldn't sustain his speed in the third.

      "We just lost a little bit there the last run," said Logano, who tied Kevin Harvick for the fastest lap in the opening round at 120.870 mph. "We got loose into (Turns) 3 and 4, missed it the first lap and did the same exact thing the second lap.

      "It's so frustrating when you win the first two rounds and the one that pays the money, you're not there. That's always frustrating. I guess we have decent speed in our car... it is just frustrating. I don't know what else to say. It just (stinks)."

      NOTES: Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the final round and will start 12th in the first race after he announced his retirement from Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Racing at the end of the season... Neither series leader Kyle Larson nor second-place Chase Elliott advanced to the final round. Larson will start 18th and Elliott 14th... If Jimmie Johnson is to win his third straight race, he'll have to do it from the 17th starting position.

      Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying - Toyota Owners 400

      Richmond International Raceway

      Richmond, Virginia

      Friday, April 28, 2017

      1. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 121.076 mph.

      2. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 120.854 mph.

      3. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 120.681 mph.

      4. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 120.471 mph.

      5. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 120.380 mph.

      6. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 120.326 mph.

      7. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 120.171 mph.

      8. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 120.144 mph.

      9. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 120.027 mph.

      10. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 119.691 mph.

      11. (19) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 119.090 mph.

      12. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 119.000 mph.

      13. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 119.697 mph.

      14. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 119.670 mph.

      15. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 119.670 mph.

      16. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 119.665 mph.

      17. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 119.638 mph.

      18. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 119.379 mph.

      19. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 119.226 mph.

      20. (77) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 118.948 mph.

      21. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 118.896 mph.

      22. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 118.640 mph.

      23. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 118.437 mph.

      24. (13) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 117.025 mph.

      25. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 119.079 mph.

      26. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 119.011 mph.

      27. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 118.917 mph.

      28. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 118.864 mph.

      29. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 118.796 mph.

      30. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 118.369 mph.

      31. (23) Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, 118.131 mph.

      32. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 117.940 mph.

      33. (15) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 117.386 mph.

      34. (83) Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, 117.096 mph.

      35. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 116.995 mph.

      36. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 116.939 mph.

      37. (51) Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, 116.189 mph.

      38. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 82.792 mph.

  • Truex Jr. doesn't mind flying under the radar
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, April 28, 2017

    By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

    • Distributed by The Sports Xchange

      RICHMOND, Va. -- Naturally enough, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s bombshell announcement that he will retire from Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing at the end of the year shifted focus to the 20-somethings who might take the reins of the sport.

      But that doesn't mean we should forget the veterans who will still be around.

      "I'm only 36," Martin Truex Jr. said before leading Friday's opening practice at Richmond International Raceway with a lap at 124.178 mph. "I don't feel old, so that's good. That's the most important part I guess, but, yeah, there's definitely a lot of young guys coming up.

      "But I feel like I've got my best years ahead of me. They can keep talking about who's retiring and who's going to fill their shoes, and hopefully I'll be here to take a bunch of checkered flags home."

      Not that Truex minds staying in the background and winning races for his No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team, while relative newcomers such as Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney get the lion's share of attention.

      "I can tell you I don't mind being that guy," Truex said of his low profile.

      Suarez has simple answer to driver's popularity

      Daniel Suarez, a Sunoco rookie in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, doesn't have the same level of fan support that has accrued to Earnhardt -- no one else does -- but the Mexican driver believes he knows how to win over new boosters.

      "I think it's very simple -- it's just being yourself," Suarez said. "I think every single driver out there in the garage has different personalities. Dale has his personality; Kyle (Busch) has his personality; Jimmie Johnson has his personality; I have my personality; and everyone is different.

      "When every single driver can go out there and be themselves, I think that's very cool, and the fans like that. You know, so far, it's what I've been doing, and I think it's the right thing to do."

      That not to say that he or any other driver will rival Earnhardt's popularity.

      "Dale has been more than a role model for the sport, and it's great what he has done," Suarez said. "Like I said on Twitter last week, I'm kind of new into the sport, but I have learned a lot from him in and out of the racetrack.

      "A great guy, a great driver, and I'm looking forward to keep racing with him this year and to keep hanging out with him, as well, in the future."

      Combining stages and Dash 4 Cash has impacted race strategy

      To hear NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Elliott Sadler tell it, the addition of stages and the modification of the Dash 4 Cash format have had a profound effect on race strategy, because drivers and crews have to take both parts of the equation into account.

      The top 10 drivers in each stage earn points, with the winner of the stage getting an additional playoff point that will carry through to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In addition, the top two Xfinity regulars in each stage earn eligibility for the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus, with the highest finisher among them at the checkered flag winning the money.

      "We've actually changed our strategy a lot this year, based on the stage racing," Sadler said. "We didn't really know how much we'd change it until we actually got to Daytona and saw how different everybody races, getting close to the ends of the stages.

      "That's what's neat about this Dash 4 cash race (Saturday's ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond). We've actually got a couple things going on. Yes, we're trying to get qualified for the Dash 4 Cash, but we're also trying to get bonus points for the stages, too."

      All that adds a layer of complexity to the decision-making process.

      "We're just kind of playing it by ear -- what decision can we make to best benefit us? It's definitely changed the way we're looking at the races, not just from the Dash 4 Cash side, but also the stage racing side. There's a lot of points to be made, and now that you know you're going to be saved by a caution, you can be more aggressive.

      "We can be more aggressive on pit road. We can take more chances, because we know there's a caution coming out to save us."

  • Auto Racing Glance
    By The Sports Xchange / Wednesday, April 26, 2017

    MONSTER ENERGY NASCAR CUP SERIES: TOYOTA OWNERS 400 (400 laps, 300 miles around a .750-mile racetrack), Richmond International Raceway; Richmond, Va.

    • TV: Sunday, 2 p.m. ET -- Fox (Radio: Motor Racing Network/SiriusXM Channel 90).

      THIS WEEK: This will be the 122nd NASCAR Cup race held at RIR, which hosted its first NASCAR event 64 years ago in 1953 (NASCAR Hall of Famer Lee Petty was the winner). ... Carl Edwards won this race last year, while Denny Hamlin won last fall's playoff race there. ... Jimmie Johnson comes into this race with a two-race winning streak, having won at Texas and the rain-rescheduled race Monday at Bristol. ... The sport's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., dropped a bombshell on Tuesday when he said he will retire at the end of the season. Team owner Rick Hendrick said he has not settled on a replacement for Earnhardt, noting that a decision will come eventually after meetings and discussions with sponsors and others affiliated with the No. 88 Chevrolet program. Among the early rumored favorites: Carl Edwards (who denied he's interested Tuesday), Alex Bowman (who replaced Earnhardt for 10 races last season while the latter recovered from a concussion) and young driver William Byron. ... Kyle Larson (360 points) continues to lead the NASCAR Cup standings. Chase Elliott is second (333), followed by Martin Truex Jr. (323), Joey Logano (291), Brad Keselowski (277), Johnson (244), Jamie McMurray (244), Clint Bowyer (239), Kevin Harvick (239) and Ryan Blaney (228).

      NASCAR XFINITY SERIES: TOYOTA CARE 250 FITZGERALD GLIDER KITS 300 (250 laps, 187.5 miles on a .75-mile track), Richmond International Raceway; Richmond, Va.

      TV: Saturday, 1 p.m. ET -- Fox Sports 1 (Radio: Motor Racing Network/SiriusXM Channel 90).

      THIS WEEK: This will be the 67th Xfinity race held at Richmond and also the eighth of 33 races this season. ... Earnhardt won this race last year, while Kyle Busch won the late summer race there. ... Even though he's a full-time NASCAR Cup driver now, Erik Jones has won the last two Xfinity races at Texas three weeks ago and last Saturday at Bristol. ... Elliott Sadler remains atop the Xfinity Series points (260), followed by Byron (244), Justin Allgaier (200), Ryan Reed (184), Daniel Hemric (180), Darrell Wallace Jr. (180), Blake Koch (164), Brennan Poole (163), Matt Tifft (160 and Michael Annett (157). ... Darrell (Bubba) Wallace Jr. saw his streak of five consecutive sixth-place finishes snapped at Bristol, where he ended with a disappointing 33rd place showing, scoring a DNF after being involved in a crash with 42 laps left in the race.

      NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: The series is off again this weekend and does not resume action until Friday, May 12, in the Toyota Tundra 250 at Kansas Speedway, the fourth race of the 23-race season.

      THIS WEEK: Elliott won the most recent Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway on April 1. ... Points leaders are: Johnny Sauter (140), Christopher Bell (136), Matt Crafton (117), Timothy Peters (110), Kaz Grala and Ben Rhodes (tied for fifth with 103 points each), Chase Briscoe (93), Grant Enfinger (84), Regan Smith (81) and Brett Moffitt (73).

      VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES: DESERT DIAMOND WEST VALLEY PHOENIX GRAND PRIX (250 laps on a 1.022-mile paved oval track); Phoenix Raceway; Avondale, Ariz.

      TV: Saturday, 9:30 p.m. ET -- NBCSN (Radio: IndyCar.com)

      THIS WEEK: The IndyCar Series returns to Phoenix for the 12th time for a Saturday night race under the lights. ... Scott Dixon is the defending winner of this race. ... Josef Newgarden won last Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. It was Newgarden's first win in just his third race for Team Penske, and his fourth career IndyCar win. ... Winners of the first three races have been Sebastien Bourdais (St. Petersburg), James Hinchcliffe (Long Beach) and Newgarden. ... Points leaders (after three races): Bourdais (117 points), Dixon (111), Newgarden (110), Simon Pagenaud (106), James Hinchcliffe (102), Helio Castroneves (84), Ryan Hunter-Reay (65), Takuma Sato (65), Ed Jones (62) and Alexander Rossi (60).


      TV: Sunday, Fox Sports 1, 5:30 p.m. ET

      This week: The most unique race on the schedule pits Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock drivers and Pro Stock motorcycle riders in competition with four drivers/riders side-by-side facing each other in qualifying and elimination rounds rather than the conventional two drivers in each run. ... Winners at last week's NHRA Springnationals in Baytown, Texas were Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Bo Butner (Pro Stock). ... Points leaders: Top Fuel -- Pritchett (494 points), Antron Brown (440), Tony Schumacher (438), Doug Kalitta (358), Steve Torrence (352); Funny Car -- Matt Hagan (400), Capps (398), John Force (371), Tommy Johnson Jr. (357), Robert Hight (301); Pro Stock -- Greg Anderson (457), Butner (426), Jason Line (403), Jeg Coughlin (372), Tanner Gray (370); Pro Stock Motorcycle -- Eddie Krawiec (120), Andrew Hines (97), Joey Gladstone (81), Steve Johnson (74), Jerry Savoie (63).

  • Earnhardt to retire after 2017 season
    By The Sports Xchange / Tuesday, April 25, 2017

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. plans to retire from the NASCAR Monster Cup series at the end of the 2017 season.

    • The 14-time Most Popular Driver has 603 starts -- 26 victories -- over a career that began at age 24 in 1999. Among his accomplishments are two Daytona 500 crowns (2004, 2014) and two championships (1998, 1999) in what has become the NASCAR XFINITY Series.

      "From my road crew to the pit crew to all the people in the 48 (and) 88 shop, I'm a better driver and a better person from my time with you guys," Earnhardt said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon in North Carolina. "You've helped me mature and grow well beyond the race track."

      Earnhardt thanked his wife, Amy, for her support throughout his career, specifically during his recovery from concussions last year, as well as his mother, Brenda Jackson, at the press conference.

      "She loves me through my good races and my bad races, but what makes her uniquely my own is she definitely is going to tell me when it was a bad race," Earnhardt said of his mother. "Everybody deserves to have someone in their life that you never have to wonder, and with my mother I never have to wonder."

      Earnhardt also thanked his father, Dale Sr., for the role he played in his life and career.

      "To my father, Dale Earnhardt, I would not have been a race car driver if it (were) not for him. He believed in me," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I appreciate my father, everything he put into my career."

      Earnhardt Jr. recognized the significance his last name played on the formation of his racing career and extended his gratitude to his fan base.

      "The fan support that I received straight out of the gate was in large part because of my famous last name, but throughout the ups and downs that occured to me, the fans stuck it out," Earnhardt Jr. said. "And the new ones that joined us, they were there because of the person I was and not who theyt wanted me to be."

      Earnhardt Jr., 42, is not having the season he planned after missing 18 races recovering from concussions in 2016.

      So far in 2017, Earnhardt has led only eight laps and his best finish was fifth in Texas (April 9). He's currently 24th in the NASCAR standings.

      He finished 38th Monday at the rain-delayed Bristol race and was victimized by crashes and unfinished races at Daytona and Martinsville, where he finished 37th and 34th.

      Following Jeff Gordon's retirement at the end of last season, Hendrick Motorsports will continue to be reshaped. Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson are carrying the four-car team in 2017, but Johnson said in February that he would begin considering retirement whenever "the time is right."

      Johnson turns 42 in September and is a seven-time NASCAR champion.

  • Winning formula for Johnson? 'He's just faster'
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, April 24, 2017

    Jimmie Johnson served notice at Bristol that he's going to be tough to beat when it comes to his pursuit of a record eighth championship in NASCAR's premier Cup series.

    • On a high-banked half-mile oval washed clean by torrential rains that postponed the race for a day, Johnson kept the pressure on his competitors with his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy in the closing stages Monday.

      All his competitors knew they needed to gamble to beat him. Various tire strategies left Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson and Clint Bowyer out in the cold. Martin Truex Jr. goofed on his pit road speed.

      "Damn it," said Bowyer, "You'd think he would get tired of winning all these races."

      The frustration of Bowyer was understandable. The runner-up finish was his first second-place finish in four years. And, after bouncing from team to team following his involvement in the "Spingate" cheating scandal in Richmond, he's looking for his first victory since 2012.

      But Johnson has a tendency to frustrate everybody. On a day when he was one corner away from getting lapped by early leader Kyle Larson, Johnson once again bided his time, waited for the track to come to him and took the lead for the first time with just over 100 laps to go.

      Stage points? Who needs them? Meanwhile, Larson, who won the first stage, later took himself out of contention with a speeding penalty.

      "We hit on something on Saturday around the bottom," Johnson said of his ability to pass in the lower groove when it counted. "We've been looking for it here for 16 years and finally got it."

      It may have been only Johnson's second win at Bristol and first in seven seasons, but it was the second straight this year after a win in Texas prior to Easter.

      Johnson is so good that he's beating ghosts of racing past as well as the current crop of lead foots. He is poised to overtake those mighty stalwarts Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip in the career victory column. After his 82nd career win, Johnson trails Yarborough by one and the others by two.

      For those who complain Johnson is too smooth, when he took the lead for the first time from Joey Logano, there was some wobbling after sliding up into the Ford. A four-way battle for the lead ensued that included Logano, Larson and Truex, and was the wheelhouse dealing of Bristol legends.

      Johnson used lapped traffic to perfection to retain the lead until Harvick's last-gasp effort of staying out of the pits in the final round of stops.

      Poor NASCAR once again got the short end of a rain deal as did Bristol for the second straight race. At a track where ticket sales have been tough, the rain started early and stayed late, allowing only enough of a break for Saturday practice and an Xfinity Series race won by Erik Jones.

      Many fans elected to not try to brave the torrential rains and left early. The rains cleared just in time to run the race on Monday afternoon -- instead of possibly being delayed until a gig under the lights in prime time.

      So an excellent race with cars occasionally running three wide ensued with a smattering of fans in the stands and many fans at work. Conditions were treacherous on a green track with cars that sat overnight under covers at a facility with no garages. There was a fair amount of slipping, sliding and crashing as well as mechanical failures for possible contenders like Ryan Blaney, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski.

      "This track has always been very racey," said Johnson, "but now that we can hunt the bottom and we can run two and three wide and put on a heck of a show for the fans."

      There was no rooting the leader out of the bottom groove as in days of yore. But the new era no doubt forced some speed-reading by drivers to figure out the changing conditions of more rubber being put down on long runs under green. That was in addition to the VHT-brand resin applied to the bottom lane of the track to give it more grip.

      "Each run, I thought, was a little bit different line-wise," said Larson, who finished sixth. "I thought it was good. I hope the fans enjoyed it. I know we were two, three wide for the lead there a couple of times it seemed like. I don't know what more fans and other drivers could ask for than that. I just hope they don't touch anymore. I think they have got something good with the VHT on the bottom. I just hope they don't do anything more to mess the top up any."

      Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus figured out the scenario best and once again forced everybody else to up their game or fall by the wayside.

      "He's just faster," Bowyer said of Johnson. "Turns out he's pretty good. No, I don't think it's a matter of making mistakes. I mean, he's just -- he's a seven-time champion. I mean, that's all you can say about it. It's good to know that you're trying to outrun and frustrated with having the best that's probably ever been beat you. I guess there is something to say about that."

  • Pit road penalty spoils Larson's chances
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, April 24, 2017

    By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

    • Distributed by The Sports Xchange

      BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Kyle Larson broke a record in a race that ran like ... well, a broken record.

      Starting from the pole in Monday's rain-delayed Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Larson led the first 202 laps of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. Never before had a driver for Chip Ganassi Racing led that many laps in a race in NASCAR's premier series.

      But as was the case in Saturday's NASCAR Xfinity Series race, when Larson led 180 laps, the end of the race wasn't as satisfying as the beginning.

      On Saturday, Larson finished seventh after a cut tire and a subsequent commitment line violation sent him to the rear late in the race.

      Monday was deja vu. Larson was running in the top five before a speeding penalty on lap 421 of 500 sent him to the rear in the Monster Energy Series race.

      Though he recovered to run as high as second, thanks to a two-tire call to gain track position under caution on Lap 462, he couldn't pass race leader Kevin Harvick over the final 33-lap green-flag run and faded to sixth at the finish.

      The quality of the competition, however, made up for the pit road mistake.

      "Yeah, I got that speeding penalty," Larson said. "I was just pushing on pit road and messed up there and had to gamble on two tires, and the balance was OK on two, but I just didn't have the speed (or), I guess, the grip that the 48 (race winner Jimmie Johnson) and the 14 (runner-up Clint Bowyer) had to run the bottom.

      "I knew I couldn't go down there and get by the 4 (Harvick), so I was trying to maybe set him up, up top, but it was a lot of fun there.

      "The three of us were racing hard for the lead for a few laps and had some traffic, so I thought the race was great. The track changed a lot throughout the race and was extremely exciting. I don't know what more you could ask out of this place. This is the best track we go to, most exciting place, and I love coming here."

      Pit road speeding penalty costly to Truex, too

      No one at Bristol could run the bottom of the track better than Martin Truex Jr., who led 116 laps in Monday's rain-delayed Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

      Truex lost some of his advantage when the potency of the VHT track sealer, which added grip to the bottom lane, began to fade as the race progressed. But the real whammy for Truex was a penalty for speeding on pit road incurred under the final caution on Lap 465.

      Truex had been battling race winner Jimmie Johnson for the lead before the infraction, but the No. 78 Toyota lost any chance for the victory after being sent to the back of the field for a restart on Lap 468.

      "We were going for it, you know?" Truex said. "Wish we could have had a shot there just to see if we could have won. This is the best run we've had here in a long time. It's bittersweet.

      "I wish we could have seen if we could have beat the 48 (Johnson). We were close there before that last caution, but it is what it is, and you try to get what you can get, and sometimes you cross the line, and today we crossed the line.

      "All in all, it was an awesome day and a lot of fun. Had the VHT not worn out quite as bad, then we would have really killed them. The top lane came in, and some guys could run that better than I could, but overall it was a good day and a lot of fun all day."

      Sneaky-fast Kenseth comes from nowhere to fourth

      Throughout most of Monday's Food City 500, Matt Kenseth was all but invisible.

      As the track changed throughout the race at Bristol Motor Speedway, however, Kenseth's fortunes changed for the better.

      In the final 15 laps, the driver of the No. 20 Joes Gibbs Racing Toyota passed Kyle Larson and Joey Logano to finish fourth, posting his first top five since he ran third at Atlanta in the second race of the season.

      "We got better there at the end and got a little bit of track position -- finally," Kenseth said. "It was an uphill battle all day without qualifying (because of a Friday rainout), and then I sped on pit road (under caution on lap 386) and got us to the back.

      "At the end, we had a car that was good -- most of the day it wasn't very good, but the last two runs we were fairly competitive."

  • Food City 500 results
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, April 24, 2017

    Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race -- Food City 500

    • Bristol Motor Speedway

      Bristol, Tenn.

      Monday, April 24, 2017

      1. (11) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 500.

      2. (9) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 500.

      3. (10) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 500.

      4. (22) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 500.

      5. (5) Joey Logano, Ford, 500.

      6. (1) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 500.

      7. (2) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 500.

      8. (3) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 500.

      9. (19) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 500.

      10. (16) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 500.

      11. (12) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 500.

      12. (8) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 500.

      13. (21) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 500.

      14. (13) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 500.

      15. (24) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 500.

      16. (26) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 499.

      17. (14) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 499.

      18. (23) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 498.

      19. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 498.

      20. (17) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 498.

      21. (31) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 498.

      22. (18) Aric Almirola, Ford, 497.

      23. (33) David Ragan, Ford, 497.

      24. (35) * Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, 497.

      25. (15) Kurt Busch, Ford, 494.

      26. (28) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 494.

      27. (37) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 491.

      28. (34) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 490.

      29. (36) Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, 487.

      30. (25) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 482.

      31. (39) * Derrike Cope, Toyota, 465.

      32. (30) Landon Cassill, Ford, 458.

      33. (6) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 452.

      34. (4) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 433.

      35. (7) Kyle Busch, Toyota, Accident, 383.

      36. (29) Danica Patrick, Ford, Accident, 320.

      37. (38) * Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, Suspension, 234.

      38. (20) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, Accident, 218.

      39. (27) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, Accident, 53.

  • Rain forces postponement of Food City 500 until Monday
    By The Sports Xchange / Sunday, April 23, 2017

    BRISTOL, Tenn. -- The Food City 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, scheduled for a Sunday afternoon start, was postponed until Monday because of steady rain.

    • The eighth race of the season will be contested at 1 p.m. ET and broadcast on FOX.

      The hourly weather forecast for Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday has rain chances of at least 90 percent every hour until midnight. The Weather Channel forecast has rain continuing until about 9 a.m. Monday.

      When the race gets underway, Kyle Larson will start on the pole. He garnered the top starting point as a result of rain forcing the cancellation of qualifying on Friday and the starting grid being set by car owner points. It is Larson's third pole in the last four races.

      "It's been a good season for us," Larson said. "Our race cars have been really fast. I've scored stage points in all but one of the stages. That is important to be the point leader. You've got to be running top-10 every race to gain as many points as you can. Like I said, our race cars have been extremely good to allow us to run up front like that. Hopefully, we can keep it going.

      "It's nice to be the point leader and be starting up front here at Bristol. I always race really well here. I just don't qualify well. Being handed the pole like this will, hopefully, help us out on Tuesday or Wednesday, or whenever we race. It will be cool to start from the front and, hopefully, like I said, hopefully, that number one pit stall kind of helps us gain some spots on pit road and have a clean race."

      Chase Elliott will start the race second, next to Larson on the front row, making for an all-Chevrolet front row. Starting in the second and third rows will be Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. and Ford drivers Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney.

      NOTES: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regulars Erik Jones, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney were impressive in the Saturday NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway -- Jones as the race winner and leader of 29 laps, Larson as the dominant driver in the race by leading 180 laps, and Blaney by leading 61 laps. ... A VHT resin to the bottom groove of the race track, heading into the Bristol race weekend, was to entice drivers to race the bottom line. But rain at the track throughout the weekend has affected the "stickiness" of the resin. ... Carl Edwards, who isn't racing in 2017, was the winner of last year's Food City 500. Kevin Harvick won the most recent Cup Series race at Bristol last August. ... Brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch are tied for most Bristol wins among active drivers with five apiece. They are tied with Jeff Gordon and David Pearson for fifth on the all-time Bristol wins list.

  • Notebook: Is the 'old' Bristol experiencing a rebirth?
    By The Sports Xchange / Saturday, April 22, 2017

    By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

    • Distributed by The Sports Xchange

      BRISTOL, Tenn. -- As it turned out, Kyle Busch was prophetic when he talked about the changing character of Bristol Motor Speedway.

      "I'm sure (Kyle) Larson's thrilled and he'll have to rubber in the top himself while the rest of us are rooting and gouging for the bottom," was Busch's tongue-in-cheek assessment of the racing characteristics of the .533-mile short track, where Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers will compete in the Food City 500 on Sunday (2 p.m. ET on FOX).

      Bristol is different this spring, thanks to a wider denser strip of VHT TrackBite applied to the bottom lane through both sets of turns at Thunder Valley. For the past few years, after Bristol ground the outside lane of the concrete surface in 2012, the top lane was superior after it had a chance to take on rubber.

      The application of the track sealer, to a greater degree than was used for last year's Night Race in August, has flipped the equation, and drivers speculated that the bottom lane would be the faster lane on Sunday.

      If that's the case, the action at Bristol would harken back to the old days, when the best way to pass a car was simply to bump it out of the way.

      "I think you're going to see the bottom lane does wear off a little bit as the weekend progresses," Busch told the NASCAR Wire Service. "It looks like they did a little more here this time than they did last time, so we'll see how that transpires and what that means.

      "From what I'm watching already, there's a lot of bottom going on and not a whole lot of middle or top."

      And sure enough, when cars took to the track for Saturday morning's first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice, there was Larson, the polesitter, in his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet singlehandedly trying to rubber in the top groove.

      With about seven minutes left in the session, Larson spun and clipped the outside wall but the cosmetic damage to his Chevy wasn't enough to force the team to a backup car. After repairs to the sheet metal, Larson was back in action for final practice.

      "I feel like it would still be really fast up there (in the top lane), it's just nobody is brave enough to go up there and work in the groove," Larson said. "The VHT is wider than the width of our race cars now, too, which makes it extremely easy to run around the bottom. ...

      "I thought the fall race (last year), I think it was like three or four feet wide. I thought that was a good width because you could get your left sides in it, and you really had to be cautious of hitting your marks every corner. Now it's like you just fire off from the corner and it doesn't really matter where you enter, and as long as your right sides are in the grip, you're going to rip around the corner."

      After running 30 laps on the bottom during Happy Hour, Larson moved up to the top, stubbornly trying to work in the outside groove. Shortly thereafter, Ty Dillon followed into the top lane, and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson did the same.

      All told, Larson ran 59 laps in final practice, finishing 26th fastest among the 37 drivers who participated.


      Juan Pablo Montoya got a warm welcome on his return to Bristol Motor Speedway, even if it was just to announce his sponsor for the upcoming Indianapolis 500.

      Montoya will compete for Team Penske in the May spectacle with Fitzgerald Glider Kits as his sponsor, the same company that holds the entitlement for Saturday's NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Bristol.

      But when asked about his first trio around BMS in a stock car, Montoya waxed nostalgic.

      "I love this place," Montoya told the NASCAR Wire Service. "Because for me, the biggest problem I had with a stock car was it had no grip. Here, with the banking, it made up a lot of grip. I always ran really well here. This was a fun place for me."

      Asked whether the relationship with Penske and Fitzgerald Glider Kits might lead to a return to NASCAR racing in a one-off situation, Montoya shrugged and smiled.

      "I don't know," he said. "They tell me go here, I go there. I mean they say, 'Jump,' I say 'How high?'"

      In general, however, Montoya thinks cross-pollination between racing series is a good thing. In the Indy 500 he'll compete against Fernando Alonso, a rival in Formula One from 2001 through 2006.

      "I think it would be nice for motorsports to do a little more of that, because it's just going to create a little more interest overall," said Montoya, who doesn't have a full-time IndyCar ride this season. "It is something that it would be nice to see all motorsports to be able to see top drivers jump from one to the other just for one race.

      "I was lucky enough to be in all the top series in the world, and being able to win in all of them and everything. I've been very blessed in that point of view."

      Montoya, however, wasn't immune from some good-natured ribbing that also recalled his NASCAR days. Fitzgerald Glider Kits founder Tom Fitzgerald Sr. introduced Montoya as "Mr. Jet Dryer," a reference to the driver's fiery collision with track-drying equipment under caution during the 2012 Daytona 500.

      "I wasn't going to do that," quipped Fitzgerald, "but I couldn't resist."


      Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Daniel Suarez posted the fastest speeds in Happy Hour, running laps at 128.563 mph and 128.262 mph, respectively. The Hendrick Motorsports entries of Kasey Kahne, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson were third, fourth and fifth. Kahne had the fastest 10-lap average at 127.482 mph. ...

      Ricky Stenhouse Jr. clipped the outside wall during Saturday's first practice and did enough damage to the right rear that the team considered going to a backup car before opting to fix the primary No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. In the repaired car, Stenhouse was 30th fastest in final practice. "I had just been really loose and just got down in the corner, and it took off," Stenhouse said of the accident. "I thought I saved it and just got the right rear in the wall."

  • Bristol rainout puts Larson on pole for Food City 500
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, April 21, 2017

    By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

    • Distributed by The Sports Xchange

      BRISTOL, Tenn. -- For the third time this season, Kyle Larson will start a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race from the pole.

      And for the second time this year, Larson gained the top starting spot not through qualifying in time trials but with an assist from Mother Nature.

      Because of intermittent rain at Bristol Motor Speedway, NASCAR canceled qualifying in favor of necessary practice for teams in the Cup, Xfinity and K&N Pro Series East Series.

      With the field for Sunday's Food City 500 (2 p.m. ET on FOX) ordered according to owner points, Larson will start up front as the series leader, with second-place Chase Elliott beside him. Those are familiar positions for both drivers, who started in the same spots when rain wiped out qualifying for the April 2 race at Martinsville.

      Interestingly, Larson posted his worst finish of the season in that race -- 17th. Otherwise, in the six events since he ran 12th in the season-opening Daytona 500, the driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet has a victory from the pole at Fontana, Calif., and four second-place finishes.

      Elliott, on the other hand, finished third at Martinsville, matching his best result of the season.

      Martin Truex Jr. will start third on Sunday, followed by Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

      Keselowski is the only two-time winner this season, having gone to Victory Lane at Atlanta and Martinsville.

      Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying - Food City 500

      Bristol Motor Speedway

      Bristol, Tennessee

      Friday, April 21, 2017

      1. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 1st.

      2. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 2nd.

      3. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 3rd.

      4. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 4th.

      5. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 5th.

      6. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 6th.

      7. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 7th.

      8. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 8th.

      9. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 9th.

      10. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 10th.

      11. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 11th.

      12. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 12th.

      13. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 13th.

      14. (77) Erik Jones, Toyota, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 14th.

      15. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 15th.

      16. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 16th.

      17. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 17th.

      18. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 18th.

      19. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 19th.

      20. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 20th.

      21. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 21st.

      22. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 22nd.

      23. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 23rd.

      24. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 24th.

      25. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 25th.

      26. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 26th.

      27. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 27th.

      28. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 28th.

      29. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 29th.

      30. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 30th.

      31. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 31st.

      32. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 32nd.

      33. (38) David Ragan, Ford, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 33rd.

      34. (15) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 34th.

      35. (83) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, Open Team - 2017 Owner Point 35th.

      36. (23) Gray Gaulding, Toyota, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 36th.

      37. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, Charter Team - 2017 Owner Point 39th.

      38. (51) Timmy Hill, Chevrolet, Open Team - 2017 Owner Point 40th.

      39. (55) Derrike Cope, Toyota, Open Team - 2017 Owner Point 41st.

  • Bristol weekend preview: Bowyer hopes to continue bounce-back season
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, April 21, 2017

    Staff Report, NASCAR Wire Service

    • Distributed by The Sports Xchange

      Clint Bowyer's NASCAR career hit a crossroad last season. Racing for HScott Motorsports, the 2012 championship runner-up finished 27th in the points standings and only logged three top-10 finishes -- both career lows.

      Heading into this year as the replacement for Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing, there was optimism Bowyer could get his career back on track. So far, he is experiencing a bounce-back season. He has already matched his 2016 total with three top-10 finishes and his third-place showing at Auto Club Speedway was his best performance since finishing third at Sonoma Raceway in June of 2015.

      Bowyer will attempt to continue his strong start to his 12th full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series campaign in Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on FOX) -- a track where he has been successful, but has never won.

      In 22 starts at the .533-mile high-banked oval, Bowyer claims six top fives, 10 top 10s and an average finish of 15.7.

      "You're really wheeling that thing, trying to keep the grip under your tires, forward bite," said Bowyer, describing his love of short-track racing. "Trying to keep the thing turning. Fighting the balance of the cars. Fighting your crew chief all race long because you're whining in the car, and he is tired of hearing you whine. But all those things come together to win that race and be successful."

      Through seven races, Bowyer ranks ninth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, 111 points behind leader Kyle Larson. The 37-year-old Kansas native hasn't finished a season ninth or better since 2013 when he placed seventh in the final standings.

      "This is an opportunity that doesn't come along very often, whether it was my first opportunity in this sport or my last, to drive for this manufacturer, Ford, and the support they are giving us -- everyone at Stewart-Haas, the management and sponsors and my teammates," Bowyer said. "You don't put enough emphasis on the impact a good teammate can have on you. Drivers capable of winning races and championships. I have two championship-winning drivers (Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch) as teammates. Danica (Patrick), everything she brings for our entire sport, let alone the company. This is the opportunity you are giddy about no matter where you are at in your career."

      Allgaier goes for second straight Xfinity Dash 4 Cash win

      Justin Allgaier took home a $100,000 bonus by winning the first NASCAR Xfinity Series Dash 4 Cash race at Phoenix Raceway last month.

      He will try to earn another $100,000 when the Dash 4 Cash competition returns in Saturday's Fitzgerald Glider Kits 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET on FS1).

      To take home the bonus, Allgaier doesn't even need to win the race. He simply needs to beat the four Dash 4 Cash-eligible drivers to the finish line at the end of the race. The two top-finishing NASCAR Xfinity Series points earning drivers in each of the first two stages make up the four-driver Dash 4 Cash field for the final stage.

      Allgaier has run well at Bristol throughout his career. In 12 starts at the Tennessee short track, he boasts one win (2010), five top fives and seven top 10s. He has finished in the top five in his last three Bristol races.

      "Bristol has just been one of those places where the very first time I turned laps around the race track I felt comfortable," Allgaier said. "Last year we he had great finishes, so I'm ready to head back there and hopefully pick back up where we left off with our Cheney Brothers Chevrolet. Plus it's a Dash 4 Cash race. How great would it be to get another $100,000 for JR Motorsports? We've won one already this year, so I'd like nothing more than to go out there and grab another one for this team."

      Bristol Weekend Guide

      Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

      Race: Food City 500

      Place: Bristol Motor Speedway

      Date and Time: Sunday, April 23 at 2 p.m. ET

      Tune-in: FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

      Distance: 266.5 miles (500 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 125), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 250), Final Stage (Ends on lap 500)

      What to watch for: Kyle and Kurt Busch attempt to seize the active Bristol wins lead. Both have five victories at The Last Great Colosseum. ... Last summer's Bristol winner, Kevin Harvick, goes for his second straight win at the Tennessee track. ... Matt Kenseth can vie for victory at Bristol where he boasts four career wins. ... Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points leader Kyle Larson looks to extend his 17-point advantage over Chase Elliott.

      NASCAR Xfinity Series

      Race: Fitzgerald Glider Kits 300

      Place: Bristol Motor Speedway

      Date and Time: Saturday, April 22 at 1 p.m. ET

      Tune-in: FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

      Distance: 159.9 miles (300 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 85), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 170), Final Stage (Ends on lap 300)

      What to watch for: Six different drivers have won the first six NASCAR XFINITY Series races this season. ... Darrell Wallace Jr. has finished sixth in his last five races. If Wallace finishes sixth next weekend at Bristol, he will tie Jack Ingram for the series record in consecutive single finishing positions inside the top-10. ... William Byron is the only driver left in the 2017 season to complete every single lap (1,037 laps completed; 100 percent) of his scheduled go-arounds this season.

  • Bristol's dramatic stage could receive jolt by new format
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, April 20, 2017

    Once a monument to stock car short track racing with grandstands climbing to the sky like the surrounding mountains, the Bristol Motor Speedway is looking to turn around hard racing times.

    • In an era when promoters are removing seats, one of NASCAR's most picturesque tracks retains its coliseum-type seating for two reasons. First, it would be hard to remove sections of seats in a way that would not blight the stadium. And second, last year's Battle of Bristol NCAA football game sold in excess of 150,000 tickets.

      In the good ol' days, a ticket to the "World's Fastest Half Mile" was as tough as getting an invitation to The Masters. Those who had season tickets held on to them and there was a long waiting list. You had to know somebody to get in.

      There were so many regular race fans that entire sections of the grandstands knew each other like relatives. But demand for tickets to Sunday's race, the eighth round of this year's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, is decidedly tepid relative to the number of seats.

      The new stage format will introduce two more additional opportunities for drivers to race to the flag stand, maybe with some bump-and-run. But will it be enough?

      It's easy to trace the downturn of racing fortunes of the "The Last Great Colosseum," located north of the Great Smokys near the Tennessee side of the border with Virginia. The slowdown began when the half-mile track was reconfigured in 2007 with graduated banking, creating a two-groove race track.

      In perhaps a sign of promoters' hubris at the time, fans were not consulted about their passion for the single low groove tap-and-turn track, where contact was a virtual necessity for passing.

      Fans didn't like the new two-groove track with graduated 24-degree banking that made for more polite racing. Further, there were other developments that alienated fans. It was the dawn of the Great Recession as well as the arrival of the Car of Tomorrow and Jimmie Johnson's streak of five straight NASCAR championships. Johnson, who now has seven championships, was well known for racing everybody cleanly, even at Bristol.

      For those who took exception to Gentleman Jimmie, the short tracks were anathema to a new era of driving compared to the days of Dale Earnhardt. The latter was known at Bristol for rattling roll cages and for doing things like turning Terry Labonte around to get to victory lane.

      Once demand for tickets dwindled, the spring race at Bristol suffered the most. The track could no longer force fans to buy the spring race tickets annually as part of a package in order to renew their tickets for the insanely popular night race in August. The summer race still prevails in terms of preference, although it, too, is hurting.

      The track was repaved in 2012 in hopes of re-installing the single groove aspect, but it didn't happen. Instead, the track gradually developed a slower lower groove. It was the bottom of the "bottom groove" malaise, which at one point got so bad that driver Brad Keselowski chastised those in the media critical of the problem, saying they were just trying to bump up readership and ratings.

      The racing fans have voted with their feet -- or perhaps more accurately with their hands by sitting on them and staying home. Meanwhile, football fans are awaiting the next opportunity for a Battle of Bristol to take place in the slow-moving world of NCAA football schedules.

      Bristol, part of the Speedway Motorsports, Inc. empire run by Bruton Smith, became the poster track for assuming fans loved NASCAR racing so much they would put up with anything to see it.

      When times were good, traffic was bad due to the track's location on a four-lane highway far from any interstate -- despite efforts to manage it. Last summer, after a rain delay cleared much of the 60,000 in the crowd away early, the traffic was still bad.

      On the other hand, traffic concerns and mediocre amenities didn't stop over 150,000 football fans from showing up to see local rivals Tennessee and Virginia Tech last September.

      Now it's a matter of managing a difficult situation and trying to recover a sense of trying to do what's right for fans. That includes putting down resin last summer to improve speed in the lower groove. The resin is similar to what is used to generate more traction on Bristol's drag strip.

      "They had a pretty good insight on what they needed to do to the bottom after the Drivers Council and NASCAR got together and told them what we thought we needed to do to try to make better racing at Bristol," Kevin Harvick said in advance of this weekend's race. "So, they were all in. This is just a classic example of collaboration between SMI, NASCAR and the Drivers Council and seeing the outcome of it was pretty exciting, just because of the fact it does open up options."

      Harvick said the resin treatment opened some eyes in August.

      "The last few years we'd been there, you get on the bottom of the racetrack and you are three- or four-tenths slower. Now you could hold your ground and get past lapped cars. It gave everybody an option to do something different, and as a driver, that's what you want. You want options."

      It is probably too much to ask that the stages introduced this year by NASCAR, which have helped generate better competition, can bring back the old Bristol. Nothing short of contact deciding the stages at 125 and 250 laps as well as the race at the checkered flag after 500 laps is likely to make a big impression.

      When the idea of Smith switching one of his race dates to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2018 first came up, Bristol was broached as a track that might lose its spring date. Instead, one of the two SMI races at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway was moved to the West. Ironically, it may be the football game and its profits that kept two dates at Tennessee's only NASCAR Cup track, which continues to tinker with formulas for bringing back the old-time religion.

  • Rookie Jones experiencing growing gains
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, April 17, 2017

    Can a rookie win NASCAR's most prestigious championship? That's almost absurd to consider given the depth of talent in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the steep learning curve faced by rookies.

    • But that hasn't kept Erik Jones, 20, from contemplating how to get to the season finale in Homestead, Fla., this year with a shot at the championship.

      Last year, Jones came within a couple of laps of winning the Xfinity Series championship in his rookie season on that circuit. He was looking to move from title to title after becoming the youngest Camping World Truck Series champion in 2015. But a yellow flag with three laps to go as he was closing on leader Daniel Suarez at the Xfinity season finale in Homestead derailed his bid.

      That caution wasn't the biggest interruption in his racing career by any means. Early in the 2016 season, Jones learned his father had been diagnosed with cancer. Dave Jones, who was instrumental to his son's racing success, died within three months at age 53.

      Through a Twitter post, Jones shared a touching goodbye letter he wrote to his father and credited him with enabling him to "believe I could do things I never thought possible."

      So, credit Jones' father for teaching his son to think big, as if it were second nature. Coming into his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Jones has been focused on two things: winning races in his Furniture Row Racing team's Toyota and advancing to the championship round in the Cup series at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. He said the pursuit of the usual focus of first-year drivers, the rookie of the year crown, would take care of itself.

      The last time anybody won the title in his rookie season occurred when Red Byron captured the first Strictly Stock championship in 1949. But during the preseason media tour in Charlotte, Jones made it clear he was focused on the highest possible finish, which would be a championship in Homestead.

      "I think it's definitely different this year," said Jones of the new points system that includes stages. "You have to position yourself to get the best possible finish you can in every segment and rack up those bonus points to get to the (playoffs). At the end of the day, the more bonus points you have, the better position you're in to make it to Homestead."

      In the first seven races prior to the Easter break, Jones has acquitted himself admirably under the new stage format. He is 14th in the points -- the same position that last year's rookie phenomenon Chase Elliott held after seven races in 2016.

      Jones has scored 19 stage points, but is still looking for his first playoff bonus points, which are earned with stage wins or an overall victory. He is well ahead of this year's two other most prominent rookies. Suarez, a first-year driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is 23rd. Ty Dillon, who drives a Chevy for Germain Racing, is 24th.

      During a Goodyear tire testing session last week in Daytona Beach, Jones was asked about his inaugural Cup season. Other than a 22nd-place finish at the Texas Motor Speedway he was satisfied in the sense of lap times.

      "I would say, performance-wise, other than last week at Texas, I've been really happy with where we've run. We've run consistently in the top 10 at Phoenix, Fontana, Atlanta but we just didn't get the finishes we deserved. I think at Fontana and Phoenix we really had top-five cars but things just didn't play out at the end.

      "Either way I look at it, we've done as good a job as we can and we brought fast race cars to the track. We're just learning more about how to execute, how to close these races out, and how to get the finishes we feel like we are capable of."

      Jones, who says his driving style is "checkers or wreckers," has become known for his quiet confidence -- although he's not shy about speaking out when the situation arises.

      He was critical of the final restart at Homestead last year, for example, which cost him a shot at the Xfinity title versus Suarez, who won it in overtime. In addition to his confidence, Jones also exudes intelligence. He says learning how to make Cup cars go fast has not been too much of a challenge. Apparently, Jones knows what he's looking for in chassis set-up.

      "Driving the cars and getting the speed out of the cars hasn't been too big of a deal," he said. "I think like we've had good speed pretty much everywhere. It's been more of a matter of everything else: The execution of getting on and off pit road, pit stops, strategy, everything that plays into these races.

      "We're learning more about that as a team. It's a whole new group with Chris Gayle, who is a rookie crew chief. We have a lot of guys on the team that are first-year Cup guys so we're all learning together and trying to figure it out more and more as we go."

      On sheer talent, Jones appears to be in a similar situation as Elliott was last year. Elliott had an impressive rookie campaign and made it to the Round of 12 in last year's postseason Chase. But restarts, pit stops, strategy and luck were decisive in keeping him from gaining his first career Cup victory.

      Jones was asked if he had talked with Elliott or Ryan Blaney, who occasionally led laps last year in his Wood Brothers Ford during his rookie campaign, about navigating his first year in the Cup. His answer was a bit surprising.

      "I don't hang out with the other drivers too much," said Jones. "I kind of do my own thing. I show up at the race track to do my job and that's kind of always how it's been. I've always lived by the mentality that you bring your friends to the race track with you."

      Throughout his professional career, Jones' only and closest confidante was his father. After his father died in June, Jones said it took the remainder of the season to get his head around the fact his father was no longer a phone call away when he ran into a problem he couldn't resolve.

      Now Jones is content to work with his Furniture Row team, including teammate Martin Truex Jr., and otherwise figure things out on his own. He's grown up fast for a guy who won't turn 21 until May 30.

  • Will fans respond to the new NASCAR?
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, April 13, 2017

    Like him or not, race winner Jimmie Johnson's two charges through the field at the Texas Motor Speedway exemplified how NASCAR has adapted its racing to boost fan attendance and TV ratings.

    • Moving from last place at the start and from mid-pack at the start of the final stage, Johnson's progress underscored how the steep reduction in aerodynamic downforce over the past two seasons has made more passing for position possible.

      The low downforce package also confirms there is now a better bridge between NASCAR, its teams and drivers. The drivers love the new low downforce -- and more teams are competing at the front of the field as a result.

      But are the fans paying attention?

      The Texas race was only the second since the Brickyard 400 in July of last year to see a boost in TV ratings. But the Texas Motor Speedway grandstands were not exactly jammed. Last year's rain delay likely mitigated the 2016 ratings and might have created a false bump up in ratings this year.

      It would be a shame if fans, including those the sanctioning body privately refers to as "lapsed," continue to dismiss NASCAR. The racing this year has been excellent by almost any standard. That's the result of the new era of NASCAR under chairman Brian France that is more responsive to the concerns of fans and participants than either his grandfather, NASCAR founder "Big Bill" France, or his father Bill France, Jr.

      The changes have been evident structurally with the Charters issued to regular participants and a driver's council. The constant tweaking of rules working in conjunction with teams and drivers has also played a major role.

      NASCAR fans are by nature demanding -- because the sport of racing is so fluid and fans expect changes. Fans are constantly generating suggestions aired in social media about what the sanctioning body needs to do to improve things. While not necessarily following those informal directives, NASCAR has worked hard to improve the racing and to be responsive.

      This year, there was no repeat winner until Brad Keselowski won at Martinsville. Every manufacturer has been to victory lane and has won stage points. The outcome of races has been in doubt up until the finish -- even when one driver dominates the first two stages. The stages themselves have sparked more intense competition. And the new points system puts a premium on gaining positions or the lead on every lap.

      While speculation and opinions continue to abound about why NASCAR is fighting declining attendance and ratings long after the Great Recession has ended, the answer can no longer be lousy racing.

      This would be good news/bad news. If the racing is excellent and fans continue to not respond, there's not much left to try.

      Given that NASCAR is committed to finally putting a road course into the postseason in 2018 at Charlotte (and this year has revised the often-disliked Chase format itself), there's more change under consideration for next season when it comes to the competition. Teams may be given a choice of tire compounds during the course of an event -- an approach that will be experimented with at the Monster Energy All-Star Race in Charlotte in May. If that effort bears fruit, NASCAR will consider following IndyCar and Formula 1 by providing more than one tire compound in regular points races.

      The alternate compound will be a softer Goodyear tire capable of dropping lap times up to four-tenths of a second per lap. The trade-off would be a shorter lifespan for the tire. Stage racing is what makes the concept of compound choice a far more interesting prospect. The All-Star race, run this year in special 20-lap segments, should be a worthwhile test.

      It may take time for NASCAR's new initiatives to begin to sink in with fans or show up in attendance figures and TV ratings. There are complaints from many quarters, including the media, that the racing culture in NASCAR's premier Cup series isn't like it used to be. But one complaint has been addressed thanks to the new playoff points system and races with stages. Drivers cannot pick up millions in salaries and purses by tooling around and not racing hard.

      The one-swing fight between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano exemplified how important individual positions on the track and the one point that goes with them have become.

      Victories are still highly sought after, but even more so this year due to the five playoff bonus points that come with them. So those who have qualified for the postseason with a victory still have plenty of incentive to bring in more instead of experimenting during races while waiting for the playoffs. (Maybe for once there will be direct correlation between who wins the championship and who wins the most races.)

      This combination of incentives to gain position, the lower aerodynamic downforce on the cars, and the big incentive to win races -- plus the regular season points championship that carries 15 bonus points -- is very likely to continue to generate passion among the drivers and possibly the fans. That passion can be seen on the pit road after races, heard over the radio when one driver thinks another is slowing him up, and elsewhere. Whether the passion generates the rivalries in a series where drivers now tend to be more buddy-buddy remains to be seen.

      NASCAR can foster more passion by going easier on penalties for errant behavior now that points are so precious. The sanctioning body maintains that each incident in every season is different, which, officials say, can result in a range of penalties -- or not.

      One week after Busch vs. Logano, Austin Dillon used his Chevy to deliberately wreck another Xfinity Series driver. Nobody received a points penalty or fine.

      Letting drivers settle things among themselves is old NASCAR. But it sure feels welcome in the new version.

  • Doing it his way, Johnson wins at Texas
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, April 10, 2017

    Maybe we should be calling Jimmie Johnson the Bearded Fox.

    • As with the renowned Silver Fox, also known as David Pearson, it's hard to figure out how Johnson gets from the back to the front, like he did Sunday to win the seventh round of the NASCAR Cup season at the Texas Motor Speedway. He is, as the saying goes, sneaky fast.

      Johnson started last in the field as a result of replacing a tire after qualifying, was running second by the end of the second stage, then came from 21st to first in the final stage. All in a day's racing for the seven-time Cup champion, who rarely makes spectacular moves even though he makes spectacular progress.

      Hall of Famer Pearson generally bided his time early in races to avoid using up his equipment and to avoid accidents born of haste. He eventually was given his Silver Fox nickname by legendary radio announcer Barney Hall while en route to one of his 10 victories at the Darlington Raceway later in his career, when there was snow on the rooftop but still plenty of fire in the belly.

      Leonard Wood, crew chief for the Wood Brothers Mercury that Pearson drove to many a victory, enjoys telling the story of one of the driver's wins at Darlington.

      Early in the race, Pearson was almost lapped by Buddy Baker. But by the end of the race, leader Pearson came around to put Baker a second lap down and, according to Wood, lit a cigarette while passing Baker, using the lighter installed in his car's dashboard. It was, needless to say, a reminder to Baker just how easy it was to get by.

      Times have changed since then. The in-car cigarette lighter, for one thing, disappeared with Dick Trickle. And drivers, who share the same motor home lot 36 weekends a year, no longer show up one another on the track or try to otherwise psychologically browbeat each other into submission.

      Now showing some flecks of silver in his beard, the sport's third seven-time champion is the epitome of the low-key approach to stock car racing. Inside Johnson's helmet, he believes he's capable of outrunning the field on any given day. But in public, he more resembles the would-be great Walter Mitty than he resembles the seven-time champs who preceded him -- King Richard Petty or The Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt.

      One could say that the dip in popularity of NASCAR results in part from the lack of friction and rivalry between drivers -- and Johnson's unwillingness to show some swagger or intimidate. That would be the stuff of good ol' legends and Johnson has never bought into it. Yet, there is that Pearson-like quality to his driving and attitude. And there are plenty of fans wearing Johnson's colors.

      After victory in Texas, his first this year and the 81st of his career, Johnson was asked about his comeback in Homestead, Fla., that earned him his most recent title and Sunday's last-to-first performance. He replied that overconfidence is the biggest enemy.

      "It's very easy to step over that line and bust your butt, from a pit call being too aggressive, too aggressive on pit lane in the car, passing other cars like we did today," Johnson said. "I had to be so patient, and in the end, the patience kind of paid off for me."

      Chad Knaus, his crew chief and co-conspirator in all his victories and championships, says that Johnson's ability to remain even-keeled has much to do with his success.

      "It seems as though we have in times of turmoil and distress managed to get some pretty solid finishes with the 48 car, and I think that's a true testament to Jimmie and his ability to not waver," said Knaus. "Like, he doesn't get spooked. He doesn't get too crazy. He keeps his calm. He's very calm in nature as we all know. So him doing that and allowing us to work on the race car the way that we need to without panic setting in, I think there's definitely an element to that."

      Johnson has not been the epitome of a smooth-driving champion this year. He's been caught speeding -- which is generally an error of execution rather than one of a lack of control -- more than once on the pit road. He's been for a spin, or two, presumably while pursuing the outer edges of the envelope of NASCAR's new low downforce configuration. And he's been slow on the uptake when it comes to the new stage system.

      His five playoff bonus points for winning Sunday's race were his first from the 49 that have been meted out in seven races. He has yet to win a stage and the playoff bonus point that goes with it.

      Johnson can be sharp and egotistical. Referring to criticism about his slow start on the heels of his seventh title, he suggested after Sunday's victory that "maybe I didn't forget how to drive after all."

      On the other hand, the generally self-effacing Johnson has also acknowledged that the new stage format does not suit his more laid-back approach to qualifying or the early laps of a race, which have generally served as a time to dial in his chassis. On Sunday, the car started fast and got faster midway in the event after adjustments.

      Appearing in the same Wood Brothers colors that Pearson helped make famous, Ryan Blaney was the driver who initially appeared to have the new configuration at TMS and the new pavement best figured out. Doing nothing to dispel the idea that stage racing is younger man's game, Blaney led 148 of the first 172 laps while looking for his first career victory at age 23.

      Blaney won the two opening stages, holding a fast-rising Johnson off in the run to the flag to end the second stage. When 19 cars stayed out during the subsequent caution, Blaney re-started 20th. Behind him was Johnson in the Hendrick Motorsports Chevy.

      Johnson went on to win the race and Blaney struggled, particularly after he got blocked by lapped traffic. Blaney then slid through his pit box during a caution that re-grouped the field, ending his chances before finishing 12th.

      Although Johnson suffered dehydration due to a faulty drinking tube and needed three bags of IV fluids after the race, his second charge through the field was not affected. He developed cramps in his left side on the high-speed banking while maneuvering past Joey Logano to take the lead. He suffered more cramps in victory lane, but there was no cramping the stuff of champions.

      Needless to say, Johnson is now qualified for this year's playoffs with 19 races left to run in the regular season. That eighth title still looms large.

  • Texas notebook: Did Blaney sacrifice Texas race to win stage?
    By The Sports Xchange / Sunday, April 9, 2017

    By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

    • Distributed by The Sports Xchange

      FORTH WORTH, Texas -- Ryan Blaney could not have asked for a better start to Sunday's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

      Grabbing the top spot from polesitter Kevin Harvick on two straight restarts within the first 37 laps, Blaney led 148 of the first 172 laps and in the process picked up a pair of stage wins and two playoff points toward the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

      But Blaney's race changed dramatically when crew chief Jeremy Bullins opted to keep him on the track when debris from Gray Gaulding's car in Turn 1 caused the sixth caution of the day on Lap 163. All told, seven cars stayed out, giving Blaney plenty of cushion to win the second stage of the race, which concluded on Lap 170 after a three-lap sprint.

      Then came the rub. Blaney had to pit under the caution that ended the stage and dropped from first to 20th behind the cars that had pitted under the previous yellow. Blaney never got back to the front, and after sliding through his pit box on his final stop, he finished 12th. In hindsight, would Blaney have preferred to have come to pit road with the majority of cars before the end of the stage and sacrificed a stage win for better prospects at the end of the race?

      "It's easy to look back on it and say, 'Oh, we should have done this, should have done that," Blaney said. "Now I say we should have stayed out the last caution (at the end of the race) and might have had a better shot at it. But you can't really change any of that now. Yeah, in hindsight, to answer your question, that was kind of a judgment call.

      "You give up a stage win and 10 points and a bonus point for the playoffs to try to set yourself for the end of the race. We thought we had enough time after segment 2 to try to work our way back up through there, and a restart actually after segment 2 really went bad for us. We got jumbled up in (Turns) 1 and 2 and let a lot of cars get by.

      "That was kind of the deciding factor, I feel like. I let a lot of good cars get by like the 48 (race winner Jimmie Johnson) and 42 (runner-up Kyle Larson and 24 (Chase Elliott). What hurt us more, I think, than anything was that restart after segment 2 when we had to check up big in (Turns) 1 and 2. I thought we made the right call to stay out there and try to win that segment. I'm for that."

      Earnhardt Jr. posts hot-but-solid fifth-place run

      Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally had a car he could enjoy -- but a balky cooling unit took some of fun out of his fifth-place run in Sunday's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

      The driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was a fixture in the top-10 for most of the afternoon, with a car that could run with the machines that have dominated the action in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series thus far this season.

      "It was warm," a red-faced Earnhardt said after climbing from his car. "I thought the car was pretty warm all weekend, but our air conditioner wasn't doing a very good job today. We've just got to relocate the outlet or the inlet to give it a better opportunity to get some air. But with the wind, as windy as it is here, you've got to put that thing in a more opportune place.

      "It's kind of like a vacuum. It's pulling air out of the helmet... I just ran with the visor up the whole day. I was happy to see that caution late to get us some Gatorade and cool off a little bit. It was hot."

      At least the result was satisfying for Earnhardt, who posted his first top five -- and top 10 -- of the 2017 campaign.

      "I figured we would get one sooner or later, but it's nice," Earnhardt said. "I know our fans are really pulling for us. Could have finished a little better, but we'll take top five."

      Knaus and Johnson prevail on a clean slate

      Chad Knaus, crew chief for race winner Jimmie Johnson, was pleasantly surprised at how racy Texas Motor Speedway became as Sunday's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 progressed.

      But NASCAR's premier driver/crew chief duo had to deal with a new racing surface to pull off their seventh victory at TMS. That meant the notes from the six previous wins no longer applied.

      "Coming here, we knew that it was going to be a challenge," Knaus said. "We didn't have any data from the race track. We didn't know how to set up our simulation, so we had to do a lot of it kind of old-school. It really worked out well.

      "Was very impressed with the way the race track began to take rubber, very impressed with the way NASCAR and everybody here at Texas Motor Speedway worked throughout the course of the night to get the groove widened out (dragging tires), and the track really got pretty racy there at the end.

      "I think we saw some guys on the outside be able to maintain their position or even take the lead on restarts there towards the middle portion of the race and then to the end. It was a good weekend. It was a lot of fun to be able to come out here and race with this new race track."

  • Texas notebook: Early leaders will be checking rear-view mirrors
    By The Sports Xchange / Saturday, April 8, 2017

    By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

    • Distributed by The Sports Xchange

      FORT WORTH, Texas -- The O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday (1:30 p.m. ET on FOX) promises to be one of the most interesting Monster Energy NASCAR Cup races of the season -- and not only because the repaved, reconfigured speedway will pose an enormous challenge to the top drivers.

      When the green flag waves, a large percentage of the speed in the field will be coming from the rear.

      The Chevrolets of series leader Kyle Larson and of Hendrick Motorsports drivers Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne will start toward the back on owner points because their cars failed to pass pre-qualifying inspection in time to make a run during time trails.

      Further expanding the contingent at the rear of the field are Kyle Busch, who hit the wall during opening practice and did not make a qualifying attempt; Erik Jones, who destroyed his primary car during practice and went to a backup, and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who spun during the first round of knockout qualifying, flat-spotted his tires and will start from the back on fresh rubber.

      Those drivers will be trying to work their way forward as quickly as possible, and they will have the muscle to do so.

      Larson was second fastest to Brad Keselowski in Saturday's first practice session. Earnhardt and Elliott were and fifth on the speed chart, all but guaranteeing a free-for-all when the race starts.

      "I ain't too worried about it," said Earnhardt, who will start 37th on Sunday. "The race is pretty long. I don't know what was wrong with our car going through tech, but if you don't make it, you don't get out there and I like that. I like the rules being the same for everybody."

      Although he clearly has a fast car, Larson acknowledged the difficulty in starting from the rear on the new Texas asphalt.

      "I don't know exactly what happened; we just didn't make it through tech," Larson said. "Yeah, this is not the place you want to not make it through tech. It will be really hard to pass, I think, on Sunday. Wherever we end up starting is going to hurt us."


      Moments after posting the fastest lap in the first six minutes of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series final practice on Saturday, Trevor Bayne lost control of his No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford and obliterated the car against the Turn 2 wall.

      "Basically, I wrecked the best race car I ever had," Bayne said after exiting the infield care center. "It's really disappointing for me. I just got into the gray getting into Turn 1. I got the right rear just a little bit in the gray, and it was gone. As soon as that happens, you know you're in trouble, but you can't go back.

      "We'll just have to be really disciplined in the race not to make mistakes like that. Hopefully, the backup car is as good as the primary. They do a really good job at Roush Fenway Racing of making sure our cars are consistent. Man, I'm so proud of what we're doing right now. It's just frustrating that I had the best car I've ever had here and had an issue."

      Because he was forced to go to a backup car for the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 on Sunday, Bayne will give up the No. 12 starting position he earned in Friday's time trials and will take the green flag from the rear of the field.

      Bayne got in 11 laps in the backup car before the end of Happy Hour.


      When Danica Patrick pressed the button on Twitter last Saturday to announce her engagement to boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr., social media blew up with the news -- until word got out it was an April Fool's joke. Stenhouse was in on the prank, but he had forgotten about it.

      "I was out in the woods working after Martinsville practice, and she says, 'Hey, it's April Fool's, I want to send something out,'" Stenhouse told reporters Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway. "She said, 'I've got this idea. Are you in?' And I said, 'Yeah, I guess so. Let's do it.'

      "Then I was on the phone talking to somebody for 30 or 40 minutes, and my phone kept going off, and I wasn't sure why it kept going off, and I forgot she had sent that out. Then I realized real quick what it was all about."

      Stenhouse said the joke hadn't increased the urgency to make a bona fide proposal.

      "I wouldn't say there's a ton of pressure, but I get it from fans a lot," he said.

  • Harvick leads Ford top-five sweep in Texas qualifying
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, April 7, 2017

    By Reid Spencer

    • NASCAR Wire Service

      Distributed by The Sports Xchange

      FORT WORTH, Texas -- Kevin Harvick needed a do-over in the second round of Friday's knockout qualifying session at Texas Motor Speedway, but putting the extra lap on his tires proved well worth the effort.

      Harvick led not only the second round but also the first and third in winning the pole for Sunday's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (1:30 p.m. ET on FOX).

      "I just didn't feel like I got through Turns 1 and 2 like I needed to," Harvick said of his first attempt in the second round. "The front took off, and I didn't want to do what everyone was doing in practice and get out of the groove and drive it into the wall.

      "It's been a stressful day, coming in and breaking in a new (resurfaced) racetrack and going out there running as fast as we had to run for qualifying."

      In the final round, Harvick secured his second pole of the season, his second of the season and the 19th of his career with his fastest lap of the afternoon, covering the distance on the repaved and reconfigured speedway at 198.405 mph.

      That was quick enough to edge Ryan Blaney (198.020 mph) for the top starting spot by .053 of a second. Blaney and Clint Bowyer ran identical times in the final round, with Blaney getting the nod for the second position on the basis of owner points.

      "Man, I heard that they give you a shotgun when you win the pole here," Blaney said of the coveted qualifying trophy. "I saw my lap and thought that might do it, but Kevin just snuck by us.

      "I think I have a really fast Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion. It was even good in race trim today. The track has come a long way in a few hours, and hopefully it will widen out even more for the Xfinity race (Saturday) and for our practices. Not a bad start to the weekend."

      Ford drivers swept the top five starting spots, in part because several of the strongest Chevrolets were out of the equation, having failed to clear pre-qualifying inspection in time to make qualifying runs in the first round.

      Among the Chevy drivers missing in action were Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series leader Kyle Larson and the Hendrick Motorsports trio of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne.

      Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson had a different issue. Starting and then aborting a second lap in the first round, Johnson lost control through Turns 1 and 2 and spun, flat-spotting his tires. Since drivers must start the race on their qualifying tires, Johnson sat out the second and third rounds and will start 24th on Sunday.

      "I think we used up all our good luck at Homestead last year," who won his record-tying seventh title at the south Florida track. "I took the stripe, and we were in position to run two (laps) and see what was going to happen. (Crew chief) Chad (Knaus) called me off when he saw the time.

      "When I heard that, I dumped the throttle real hard to try and check-up and roll through the center so I could go through the corner slowly; and when I dumped out of the throttle it pitched the car sideways and I started chasing it going into the turn. I thought I had it saved and then I got into all those marbles and kept getting closer to the wall and spun."

      In addition to Larson and the Hendrick drivers, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones did not advance through inspection in time to qualify. Both suffered accidents in Friday's opening practice, with Jones going to a backup car and Busch's crew attempting to repair the primary.

      "We were just behind the eight ball, having to fix that car, so obviously we got in line really late and in our haste, we didn't get our tech blocks set correctly, so we passed templates, passed the grid, passed undercar, passed everything except when we got to the scales, which is the very last thing," said Adam Stevens, Busch's crew chief.

      "The wedge has to be within a certain number, and we were below that number. That’s just for tech -- it’s not for on the racetrack -- so the car was all set to go, and we didn't get a chance to set our tech blocks because we were in such a hurry, so just an error on our part."

      Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Qualifying - O'Reilly Auto Parts 500

      Texas Motor Speedway

      Fort Worth, Texas

      Friday, April 7, 2017

      1. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 198.405 mph.

      2. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 198.020 mph.

      3. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 198.020 mph.

      4. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 197.759 mph.

      5. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 197.563 mph.

      6. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 196.492 mph.

      7. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 196.421 mph.

      8. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 196.299 mph.

      9. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 195.525 mph.

      10. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 195.002 mph.

      11. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 194.517 mph.

      12. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 192.082 mph.

      13. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 194.925 mph.

      14. (13) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 194.847 mph.

      15. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 194.707 mph.

      16. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 194.377 mph.

      17. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 194.084 mph.

      18. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 193.861 mph.

      19. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 193.715 mph.

      20. (19) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 193.292 mph.

      21. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 192.458 mph.

      22. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 191.123 mph.

      23. (83) Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, 188.719 mph.

      24. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 193.251 mph.

      25. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 190.550 mph.

      26. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 190.335 mph.

      27. (7) JJ Yeley(i), Chevrolet, 189.793 mph.

      28. (72) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 189.195 mph.

      29. (23) Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, 188.265 mph.

      30. (15) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 188.186 mph.

      31. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 182.852 mph.

      32. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

      33. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

      34. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 0.000 mph.

      35. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

      36. (77) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 0.000 mph.

      37. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

      38. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

      39. (51) Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, 0.000 mph.

      40. (55) Derrike Cope, Toyota, 0.000 mph.

  • New surface challenges drivers at Texas
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, April 7, 2017

    By Reid Spencer

    • NASCAR Wire Service

      Distributed by The Sports Xchange

      FORT WORTH, Texas -- Denny Hamlin's instant analysis was an omen of things to come.

      "This baby is ice -- no grip at all," Hamlin declared on his radio after spinning out on the new asphalt at Texas Motor Speedway just 2:23 into Friday's opening practice at the 1.5-mile track.

      Hamlin was lucky. He escaped contact with the wall and Hamlin had it back on the track shortly thereafter as teams prepared for Sunday's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (1:30 p.m. ET on FOX).

      Teammate Kyle Busch wasn't as fortunate. After running 49 laps in the session, he slid out of the narrow groove in Turn 1, fought the car through the corner and tapped the outside wall with the right rear in Turn 2.

      The team debated whether to go to a backup car and ultimately decided to try to repair the primary.

      "I just missed the entry going into (Turn) 1," Busch said. "My right rear was just hung over the black edge into the dirt. As soon as I turned off, it was gone. I was chasing it from entry. It was a really fast car. Oh, well."

      There was no evaluation necessary after Erik Jones flattened the right side of his Toyota against the Turn 4 wall. Jones was trying to get everything he could out of a mock qualifying run and went over the edge on the newly-repaved track.

      "I thought after the first run I felt pretty comfortable on our qualifying run and just thought I could get a little bit more," Jones said. "And coming up in speed I thought we could hold it wide open, and it just didn't have it in it, so I got up out of the groove and once I got up into the gray it just took off.

      "It's unfortunate -- the 5-hour ENERGY Camry had a lot of speed in it, but we'll just have get the backup out, and hopefully it will be just as good."

      Toyota drivers were the victims of the first three major incidents, but other makes weren't exempt. Chase Elliott spun in his Chevrolet, bouncing off the outside wall and slamming into the inside barrier and damaging both sides of his car.

      Afterward, he sounded a familiar refrain.

      "Just got out of the groove there off (Turn) 2 and got too high and got the wall," Elliott said. "Then had too much wheel in it going the other way, so just a mistake on my end. I hate it. I thought our car was pretty good, so hopefully this one (the backup) will be just as good, if not better."

      Just how different is Texas after the repave?

      Trevor Bayne wasn't among the casualties in Friday's opening practice at Texas, but his 41 laps on the newly paved, reconfigured track gave him an appreciation for just how tricky the surface is.

      "It is a little treacherous," Bayne told the NASCAR Wire Service after the session. "You come in, and your crew chief wants feedback, and you're like, 'Man, I'm just trying to survive right now.' When you're on the racetrack, it requires every ounce of your focus and attention. It will bite you. We've seen that a lot today.

      "If you miss the groove by a tire-width, you can be in trouble. On our last qualifying run, I got up kind of high. I can't wait until this place widens out. Obviously, we are already talking about that the first time here. That will happen over time. I would love to run a bigger arc into Turn 1, but where they put the rubber down you just can't do that yet."

      In addition to the repaving, the first and second corners at TMS now are wider, with shallower banking than before. Coupled with the lower-downforce rules package introduced in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this year, the lower banking presents a major challenge.

      "The banking not being there in (Turn) 1 definitely gives the car an uneasy feeling as you turn off the wall," said Bayne, who was 13th fastest in the opening practice. "You're working on 'loose in' (a loose handling condition into the corner) a little bit. It's going to be interesting. Dirty air is going to be tough when you’re already loose like that.

      "We have to be patient with repaves and understand in the future that the less banking and things like that are directionally correct to get corner speed and aero-dependence down. I think they're making good decisions. I've always loved Texas, but part of that was the worn-out pavement. Hopefully, I have a new reason to like it this weekend."

      Don't tell Jimmie Johnson to get a life -- he has one

      Just because Jimmie Johnson is a champion Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver, that doesn't mean he's going to lead a cloistered, risk-free life.

      The seven-time champion currently splits time between Charlotte and Colorado, and he's an accomplished skier -- even though there are potential hazards involved.

      "If I stay in this little quarantined area, I might go 'Carl Edwards,' and I don't want to do that," Johnson said, referring to the driver who stepped away from NASCAR racing. "I need to live my life, and this is the way I do it."

      An aficionado mountain biking and iron man competitions as well as skiing, Johnson isn't unaware of the potential dangers.

      "I think about it and I think I manage my risk," he said. "I know that my team owner (Rick Hendrick) is at least OK with me being out there. I look at the video I posted recently, and I'm on a very low pitch, very wide-open, powder snow. I mean it's the best conditions ... and nobody around. It was in this private area of the mountain we were riding in this CAT to get out to it.

      "I felt like I was managing my risk pretty damn well to go into that environment. But you could get run over by a car cycling, running, you could step off the curb in front of a bus. Again, I feel like every driver is willing to take certain risk for their fitness and to live their life. Me being on those skis, it's more about living my life and doing something I enjoy."

  • Texas weekend preview: Elliott poised for first Cup Series win at Texas
    By The Sports Xchange / Friday, April 7, 2017

    Staff Report, NASCAR Wire Service

    • Distributed by The Sports Xchange

      After making the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs as a rookie in 2016, talented 21-year-old Chase Elliott has raised his performance in his sophomore season.

      Elliott has three top-five finishes in six starts this year and ranks second in the series standings, a mere four points behind fellow young star Kyle Larson.

      All Elliott needs to truly "arrive" is his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win. He will get the chance to accomplish the feat in Sunday's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (1:30 p.m. ET on FOX) -- the site of his first NASCAR Xfinity Series victory.

      "I'm looking forward to getting back to Texas -- what a fun place," Elliott said before arriving at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. "I think Texas will always be special to me after getting my first Xfinity Series win there."

      The No. 24 Chevrolet driver finished fifth (spring) and fourth (fall) in his two Texas starts last season. On Sunday, he will have to contend with defending winner Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, who boasts a track-record six victories.

      "Texas is a place I enjoy going to and after the good runs we had there last season, I'm definitely looking forward to returning," Elliott said.

      Byron sets sights on first win

      William Byron has always been a quick study. He won four races as a rookie on his way to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship in 2015. Last year, he set the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series rookie record with seven victories. The 19-year-old Charlotte native was also a straight-A student in high school and is finishing up his sophomore year at Liberty University.

      Byron's rookie season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series has been no different. He sits second in the series standings -- 17 points behind Elliott Sadler -- on the strength of two top-five and four top-10 finishes in five starts.

      Byron will attempt to get his first win in Saturday's My Bariatric Solutions 300 at Texas Motor Speedway (1:30 p.m. ET on FOX) -- a track where he won in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last year.

      "I have a good history at Texas Motor Speedway with winning the Truck race in June last year," Byron said. "Hopefully I can carry some of that confidence into this weekend's race. We have had some good runs lately, a few top fives that we can continue to build on this weekend."

      Texas Race Weekend Guide

      Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

      Race: O'Reilly Auto Parts 500

      Place: Texas Motor Speedway

      Date and Time: Sunday, April 9 at 1:30 p.m. ET

      Tune-in: FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

      Distance: 501 miles (334 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 85), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 170), Final Stage (Ends on lap 334)

      What To Watch For: Brad Keselowski goes for his second consecutive win and third victory of the season at Texas. ... Jimmie Johnson tries to add to his track-record six wins. ... Erik Jones -- a winner at Texas in the NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series -- searches for his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series checkered flag. ... Kyle Busch attempts to defend his spring Lone Star State victory.

      NASCAR Xfinity Series

      Race: My Bariatric Solutions 300

      Place: Texas Motor Speedway

      Date and Time: Saturday, April 8 at 1:30 p.m. ET

      Tune-in: FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

      Distance: 300 miles (200 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 45), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on lap 200)

      What To Watch For: Elliott Sadler tries to increase his 17-point standings lead over teammate William Byron. ... Darrell Wallace Jr., who has placed sixth in his last four starts, looks for his fifth straight top-10 finish. ... There have been five different winners in the first five races.

  • New pavement equals new opportunity in Texas
    By The Sports Xchange / Thursday, April 6, 2017

    Whatever happened to the days when athletes would predict a victory in advance?

    • Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath, to name two, became popular heroes in part by predicting what round an opponent would fall or that a Super Bowl victory was in hand -- in advance of the event.

      In the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at the Texas Motor Speedway, at least 20 drivers have a solid chance to win it. But nobody's making any predictions.

      With new pavement, a change in the configuration of Turns 1 and 2 and without any Goodyear tire test or computer scans of the track, the door is open for any driver and team to adapt quickly to the new conditions. When practice starts Friday, every driver and team will get on the new pavement and configuration for the first time.

      It's a great opportunity for younger drivers to get on even footing with the veterans who knew where all the bumps were and how to get over them faster.

      You can bet that drivers looking for their first career Cup victory like Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon believe their chances of winning are better than usual. Apparently, the not-so-brash youngsters plan on letting their driving to the talking.

      Nobody among the younger set is saying things like, "I wouldn't be surprised to see a driver get their first career victory here, because of the new configuration and fresh pavement."

      Instead, they're offering general plaudits like how much they enjoy racing on the Texas track. Privately, the point of view of Elliott, Blaney and Dillon is likely one of greater optimism than usual.

      While avoiding any predictions, Elliott said as much.

      "I'm looking forward to getting back to Texas -- what a fun place," he said. "I think Texas will always be special to me after getting my first Xfinity Series win there. It's a place I enjoy going to and after the good runs we had there last season, I'm definitely looking forward to returning."

      Another youngster who could make his presence felt is rookie Erik Jones. Like Elliott, he has won an Xfinity race at Texas, is currently 13th in the points standings while driving for the Furniture Row Racing as a teammate to Martin Truex, Jr., already a race winner this year.

      While skipping his high school graduation, Jones made his NASCAR debut at TMS within days of his 18th birthday in the Craftsman Truck Series and won in first Xfinity Series appearance on the Texas track.

      "It used to be the old worn out surface that made Texas so unique, how rough it was and hard it was to get your car to work over those bumps," Jones said. "But the repave and the changes they've made to the banking in Turns 1 and 2 makes it unique in a whole new way."

      Jones said prior to the season he would focus on winning races and not worry about the rookie of the year chase. He likes his Furniture Row team's chances in Texas. "We've had fast cars and run up front at times," he said. "The biggest thing I look at is if we've gotten better every week. That was the ultimate goal starting the year with a new team. We've managed to do that and now we just have to keep on that track, execute better at the end of the races and start to hammer out the finishes I know we're capable of."

      Jones, Dillon and Blaney may find an advantage by racing in the Xfinity Series event, which will give them more seat time on the 1.5-mile track, where Turns 1 and 2 have been widened to 80 feet from 60 and the banking has been reduced by five degrees.

      Interestingly, the driver best known for using the Xfinity Series as a launching pad, Kyle Busch, is not entered in the preliminary race this year. Last spring, he swept both ends of the Texas doubleheader.

      Kevin Harvick, still looking for his first Cup victory in Texas, will be one of the veterans getting seat time in the Xfinity race along with Joey Logano and Casey Mears.

      "They put a lot of thought into making things different," Harvick said of the lower banking in Turns 1 and 2. "But, we're just showing up at the racetrack and having two hours of practice basically for the Cup cars and then a couple Xfinity practices before jumping in the car to qualify.

      "It's going to be very unique because, usually, we have an open day of testing in these situations. I think it's going to be a great challenge. It's like going to the roller-coaster park and getting on a roller coaster that scares you to death the first time. There's nothing like going out there and getting scared to death, sliding around trying to figure out where you're going. There's a lot more to think about than normal."

      It's entirely possible that only one team and driver will hit on the formula for the new track, possibly running away with the event despite the presence of two 85-lap early stages that bring mandatory cautions. Veterans have plenty of experience when it comes to sorting through new conditions.

      "In years past, it's been tire management and finding a groove where you can work, but I really do think that will be all thrown out the window," said Clint Bowyer, looking for his first win with Stewart-Haas Racing and his first at Texas.

      "Now, you will probably need to find the shortest way around the track, which means riding around the bottom will be the fastest way around."

      Bowyer predicts that a driver will have to have a car that is fast as soon as it's unloaded from the hauler in order to qualify well. But after that, it will be up to driver input and not the computer simulation programs, because the key elements of a tire test and track mapping are missing.

      That leaves the race on the wide-open plains of central Texas wide open, especially now that Turns 1 and 2 are 20 feet wider.

  • New points system sets stage for younger drivers
    By The Sports Xchange / Monday, April 3, 2017

    It appears stage racing in NASCAR has become a younger man's game.

    • After a race at Martinsville Speedway that had as much contact as an NFL game, once again it was the drivers under 40 years old who dominated the opening stages and the finish as Brad Keselowski won his second race of the season.

      The points standings after six races, led by 24-year-old Kyle Larson and 21-year-old Chase Elliott, continue to point to a youth movement. By contrast, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson struggled with more aggressive, younger drivers at Martinsville and limped in with a 15th-place finish. That moved him up to 14th in points.

      Other drivers who have passed their 40th birthday include Jamie McMurray, ninth in the standings, and former champion Kevin Harvick (10th). Harvick has the distinction of being the only driver in his age group to win a stage, having won three.

      None in this category have won a race. Forty-somethings Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. aren't even among the top 20 in points.

      The idea behind stage racing was putting more demands on drivers to race hard in the earlier segments by using incentives of regular-season points and postseason bonus points. The concept finally turned into visual reality in the bump-and-grind on Martinsville's half-mile.

      Dive-bombing, slashing passes and bump-and-run took over as drivers fought for stage points and position. But even prior to Martinsville's frenetic short-track action, it was clear that the younger drivers have adapted better to racing hard from the drop of the green.

      "I think the way the new racing is with the stages and stuff, short-run speed is key, and if you have long-run speed, fall-off, it really doesn't matter because you're going to get a caution at some point," said 26-year-old Austin Dillon, who had his best result of the season with a fifth-place finish.

      The idea of drivers competing well past their 40th birthday is about as old as NASCAR itself. Where George Blanda was a phenomenon in the NFL and Gordie Howe likewise in the NHL as older athletes, it has been standard procedure for NASCAR stars to compete into their 50s.

      One need look no further than the Fox Sports broadcast booth, where 70-year-old Darrell Waltrip holds forth. The three-time champion ran his final full season at age 53. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was two months shy of his 50th birthday at the time of his fatal accident while in pursuit of an eighth championship.

      Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have served notice that the current generation of champions or would-be titlists are likely to walk away before the half-century mark. After the first six races of the season, some other champions and stalwarts might have similar notions. Only the question is begged -- will they be put out to pasture by younger drivers gobbling up stage points while pressing the issue from the drop of the green?

      Ricky Stenhouse Jr. drop-kicked leader Kyle Busch in the final two turns of the second stage to avoid being lapped. In the first stage, a scrum developed over seventh through 10th places. In the battle for seventh, Ryan Blaney got the better of Johnson through sheer aggressiveness, causing the seven-time champ, who is 41, to ram Blaney once the caution fell.

      All of this because: a) Blaney's Ford had tagged Johnson's Chevy once already in the opening stages; and b) the points do matter when it comes to the postseason playoffs.

      There's a theory behind the approach of the older generation of drivers who have won the bulk of the championships since the death of Earnhardt Sr. Despite dramatic safety improvements, they raced relatively conservatively to avoid accidents and tried to enforce a code versus younger drivers such as Keselowski and Joey Logano as they came up. Those days are gone with the introduction of stage racing.

      "To see the young guys out there, (Chase Elliott) and (Kyle Larson) just to mention a couple of them, these guys are on it, and to me that's what's making the sport so exciting," said winning team owner Roger Penske, who has seen a race or two. The victory of Keselowski, 33, came in Team Penske's 1,000th start in NASCAR.

      Keselowski, whose first victory resulted from putting Edwards' Ford into the fence at the Talladega Superspeedway in 2009, has long advocated more aggressiveness. When asked about the controversy between Busch and Stenhouse Jr., Keselowski dodged the core question and instead focused on the overall change in driver behavior. He said that's the object of the stage format.

      "Whether you agree with specific moves is really neither here nor there, but when you put things on the line, when you put more on the line throughout the race, you get more moments like that, and I think in the end, the fans win and the sport wins."

      On this day, twentysomethings Dillon and Stenhouse Jr., who finished 10th, got the better of it. In all, four of the drivers in the top 10 were in their twenties and that didn't include Blaney, 23. The driver of the Wood Brothers' Ford had more contact that a linebacker and ended up 25th. It was a memorable run worthy of his team from nearby Stuart, Va., which has competed at Martinsville most of the 70 years it has been open.

      Leave it to NASCAR's version of Wrigley Field or Fenway Park to draw attention to a youth movement.

  • NASCAR notebook: Elliott speeds to best Martinsville finish
    By The Sports Xchange / Sunday, April 2, 2017

    By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

    • Distributed by The Sports Xchange

      MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- When it came to Chase Elliott's performance in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Martinsville Speedway, the driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was suffering from a severe lack of self-esteem.

      After Sunday's STP 500 at the .526-mile short track, Elliott will have to re-evaluate.

      Starting on the outside of the front row after rain washed out Friday's time trials, Elliott ran in the top five for the bulk of the afternoon and rolled home third, by far his best result in four Monster Energy Series starts at the iconic track.

      In fact, Elliott has shown steady improvement since running 38th in his 2015 debut at the track. In last year's races, he was 20th and 12th. His third-place finish on Sunday followed a victory in a 250-lapper in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

      "We started the race, and for whatever reason, my car would not turn at all for the first three or four laps, and I about knocked whoever was on the outside of me back to Charlotte a couple times, and I thought we were going to drop like a rock," Elliott said. "Fortunately, I don't know if it was just being on the splitter or whatever it was, but actually our car kind of came to life and started turning pretty good.

      "From there, it drove pretty similar throughout the entire day. Like I said, I hope it's a consistent trend, that we can continue to run decent here. Obviously, we'd love to kind of take that next step and try to contend for a win. But from where I've been here in the past, night and day, so I was really happy and proud of that."

      Stenhouse applies the bumper -- and can expect payback

      The essence of stage racing crystalized into one dramatic moment on lap 260 of Sunday's STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

      Coming to the green/checkers at the end of Stage 2, Kyle Busch passed Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to put the No. 17 Ford a lap down. But as Busch rolled through Turns 3 and 4, Stenhouse gave Busch two whacks to the bumper, knocked Busch's No. 18 Toyota up the track in Turn 4 and executed a pass to stay on the lead lap.

      Stenhouse's tap also allowed Chase Elliot to dive to the inside of Busch's car and get to the stripe first, depriving Busch of a stage win and a playoff point.

      Busch has filed the incident in his memory banks.

      "They were doing everything they could in order to stay on the lead lap, but when you've got the leader to your outside and you just keep banging him off the corner, that's pretty disrespectful," Busch said.

      "But do whatever you want. You know, it's going to come back and bite you one of these days. You've just got to always remember race car drivers are like elephants -- they remember everything. Every time they see a mouse, they remember."

      Dillon's run validates progress at RCR

      Ryan Newman's victory at Phoenix Raceway, made possible by staying out on old tires, seemingly came out of nowhere. After all, no Richard Childress Racing driver had won an event in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series since 2013 before Newman took the checkered flag at Phoenix.

      But the speed in the RCR cars has improved, as both Austin Dillon and Newman proved in Sunday's STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Dillon came home fifth, his first top-five finish since running fourth at Bristol last August.

      Newman contributed an eighth-place finish.

      "We didn't have the speed the first couple practices, which for some reason I never do here," Dillon said. "It's just a trend. I can't go fast enough to start, and then we consistently get better throughout practice and the race. It's nice to do that, but I wish I could not give the field half a race before we get up through there.

      "Starting 20th was big for us because our last practice was good. Our car had take-off speed the whole day. It's the first race car we've had that can actually restart and go for the first five laps, and that's a lot of fun, and we've got to focus on that. I think the way the new racing is with the stages and stuff, short-run speed is key, and if you have long run speed, falloff, it really doesn't matter because you're going to get a caution at some point."

      Dillon was strong during the final 64-lap green-flag run but couldn't catch the cars of race winner Brad Keselowski or runner-up Kyle Busch.

      "I thought we were going to have a little something for the two leaders, but in middle of the run, our car just lacked a little bit more turn and forward drive," Dillon said. "Then at the end we could come back to them again. I think I was running the 22 (fourth-place finisher Joey Logano) back down there at the end.

      "Just proud of my guys and thankful for this run -- we needed it."

  • STP 500 results
    By The Sports Xchange / Sunday, April 2, 2017

    Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race -- STP 500

    • Martinsville Speedway

      Martinsville, Virginia

      Sunday, April 2, 2017

      1. (4) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 500.

      2. (10) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 500.

      3. (2) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 500.

      4. (5) Joey Logano, Ford, 500.

      5. (20) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 500.

      6. (30) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 500.

      7. (8) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 500.

      8. (11) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 500.

      9. (25) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 500.

      10. (24) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 500.

      11. (33) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 500.

      12. (15) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 500.

      13. (16) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 500.

      14. (13) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 500.

      15. (17) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 500.

      16. (3) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 500.

      17. (1) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 500.

      18. (18) Aric Almirola, Ford, 500.

      19. (22) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 500.

      20. (9) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 500.

      21. (31) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 499.

      22. (23) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 499.

      23. (29) Danica Patrick, Ford, 499.

      24. (34) David Ragan, Ford, 498.

      25. (7) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 498.

      26. (26) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 497.

      27. (27) Landon Cassill, Ford, 497.

      28. (35) * Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, 496.

      29. (37) Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, 495.

      30. (12) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 493.

      31. (32) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 492.

      32. (19) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 489.

      33. (38) * Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, 486.

      34. (21) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, Accident, 418.

      35. (28) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, Accident, 401.

      36. (36) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, Accident, 385.

      37. (14) Kurt Busch, Ford, Accident, 295.

      38. (6) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, Accident, 105.

      Average Speed of Race Winner: 70.139 mph.

      Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 44 Mins, 59 Secs. Margin of Victory: 1.806 Seconds.

      Caution Flags: 14 for 95 laps.

      Lead Changes: 18 among 7 drivers.

      Lap Leaders: K. Larson 1-23; B. Keselowski 24-71; J. Logano 72; M. Truex Jr. 73-88; D. Hamlin 89-108; Kyle Busch 109; M. Truex Jr. 110-135; Kyle Busch 136-144; C. Elliott 145-151; Kyle Busch 152-259; C. Elliott 260-272; Kyle Busch 273-336; D. Hamlin 337-340; Kyle Busch 341-405; B. Keselowski 406-415; Kyle Busch 416-428; B. Keselowski 429-443; Kyle Busch 444-457; B. Keselowski 458-500.

      Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): Kyle Busch 7 times for 274 laps; B. Keselowski 4 times for 116 laps; M. Truex Jr. 2 times for 42 laps; D. Hamlin 2 times for 24 laps; K. Larson 1 time for 23 laps; C. Elliott 2 times for 20 laps; J. Logano 1 time for 1 lap.

      Stage #1 Top Ten: 78,11,18,2,24,42,21,48,3,14

      Stage #2 Top Ten: 24,18,2,48,21,88,20,77,6,5

  • NASCAR notebook: Busch proponent of parity
    By The Sports Xchange / Saturday, April 1, 2017

    By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

    • Distributed by The Sports Xchange

      MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Joe Gibbs Racing, which dominated the first half of the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, is winless in five races to start the current season.

      So is Hendrick Motorsports, the juggernaut that carried Jimmie Johnson to his record-tying seventh championship last year.

      Instead, Kyle Larson delivered Chip Ganassi Racing its second victory in as many years last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, and Ryan Newman broke a 127-race drought with his strategic win at Phoenix International Raceway.

      But don't think for a minute that Kyle Busch is worried heading into Sunday's STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway (2 p.m. ET, FS1).

      "I don't think it should be alarming," Busch said on Friday at Martinsville, where he broke through with his first victory at the track in last year's spring race. "I think it's probably a good thing, to be honest with you. There needs to be more parity in our sport. There needs to be other teams that have the opportunity to get up there and run well and win races.

      "You see RCR (Richard Childress Racing) has done that (with Newman). You see Ganassi has done that. Those would be two teams that probably haven't won in the last couple years. I know Larson won a race last year, but not regularly, let's say, like the JGR bunch or the HMS bunch. Our time is coming. We know that. We'll turn our program around. We'll get it up to speed to where we need to."

      Busch has acknowledged that JGR perhaps hasn't kept up with other Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams in adapting to the new lower-downforce aerodynamic package introduced full time this season.

      "I think we're playing a little bit of catch-up right now, to be honest with you," Busch said. "We do have great partners with the guys at Furniture Row that have been running really good. They've been strong and up front each week.

      "They have been helping us as well, getting our program to where we believe we know it can be. They've shown us. They've had the potential each week. We just have to get there with ourselves."


      At first glance, there's nothing even remotely similar between Martinsville Speedway and Sonoma Raceway.

      At .526 miles, Martinsville is the shortest of short tracks in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, a narrow, flat, paper clip-shaped venue with tight turns and concrete corners.

      Sonoma, on the other hand, is a 1.99-mile road course with 10 turns (some of them right-handers) and dramatic elevation changes.

      Surprisingly, though, AJ Allmendinger has translated the techniques that have made him a road-course ace into an excellent record at Martinsville, where he has posted two second-place finishes, most recently in last year's spring race.

      "I think it's a race track that, when I first started, I had no clue how to get around, and just over the years trying to learn the techniques," Allmendinger said in explaining his grasp of Martinsville, the host track for Sunday's STP 500. "It's somewhat like a road course in the sense of the way you brake and some of the stuff you can do with the throttle and things like that.

      "A driver can make a bit of a difference here, so more than anything, just trying to learn the techniques. You still have to have a great race car. The last couple of years we've had a good set-up and been able to use it to have some pretty good runs."

      Allmendinger ran 53 laps in Saturday morning's first practice, posting the fifth-fastest speed at 93.729 mph. On Sunday, he hopes to complete 500 circuits.

      "It's just a tough race," Allmendinger said. "It's one of those races that you can't really let your guard down mentally for 500 laps. Anything can happen, usually get a late-race restart, so a racetrack that has been tough, but over the last couple of years has been really good for us, and hopefully can have another good run -- because we definitely need it."

      Allmendinger is 30th in the series standings, and with qualifying rained out on Friday, he'll start 30th on owner points on Sunday and will have to come through the field to achieve a strong finish.


      Three drivers who have won races this season were the three fastest in Saturday's first practice. Atlanta winner Brad Keselowski topped the speed chart at 94.406 mph, followed by Phoenix winner Ryan Newman and Las Vegas winner Martin Truex Jr. ... Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Daniel Suarez, who backed his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the Turn 3 wall in Friday's opening practice, had trouble getting his backup car up to speed on Saturday morning. Suarez ran 75 laps in Saturday's first session and was 34th fastest at 92.056 mph. ... In warmer conditions during final practice, Keselowski was fourth fastest behind Clint Bowyer, who led the session at 93.863 mph, Kyle Busch (93.567) and Jamie McMurray (93.530). Suarez improved to 25th in Happy Hour with a top lap at 92.312 mph.