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What drivers had to say after Sunday’s STP 500 Sprint Cup race at Martinsville

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What kind of a day was it for drivers in Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway?

Here’s what many of them had to say about the good and/or bad:

Kyle Busch, 1st: “I’d say it certainly helps when you get to run other divisions and that’s why I do it to pay off on Sundays. It doesn’t work every single weekend, but it works more times than it doesn’t, so can’t say enough about everyone at KBM (Kyle Busch Motorsports) for giving me a great piece yesterday to help me learn, teach me some more things about Martinsville that I didn’t already know in 30 other prior starts. … (We ran) up front all day, led a lot of laps, probably led the most laps there and to win here in Martinsville is pretty cool – finally get to take a clock home. A lot of people said I didn’t deserve yesterday – maybe I don’t – but I certainly got one today.”

AJ Allmendinger, 2nd: “Well, I was hoping for one more spot for a culmination. But, I passed Jimmie Johnson like five times at Martinsville; that’s pretty cool! … We weren’t where we wanted to be about six months ago. We brought in so many people who stepped up to embrace their new roles. I thought we might really have a shot at them. Randall Burnett (crew chief) and all the guys and pit crew I can’t thank them enough. They really stepped it up the last two weeks and gave us a shot to win that race. I had to get aggressive. I thought, heck, with 12 (laps) to go we might have a new clock in the shop. Came up a little bit short, it’s pretty cool to be racing Kyle Busch for the win here though.”

Kyle Larson, 3rd: “We had a really good Target Chevy. It was really fun this whole weekend to be competitive every time I was on the race track. Normally, I’m very bad here and to finish top 3 feels like a win for me. Never would I have thought that I’d get a top 3 here and now I can kind of see a (grandfather) clock maybe in my future. … I learned a lot. I spent a lot of time behind Jimmie Johnson and I felt like I just followed his track there and got a lot better throughout the race. … So, hat’s off to everybody on this Target Chevy and it was cool to get a good finish.”

Austin Dillon, 4th: “I’ve got to learn to keep my mouth shut on the radio (calling out teammate Paul Menard). That’s part of racing. I’m a fiery guy and it was fun today. It’s nice to see the front of a short track like that. Sometimes you’ve just got to grow up a little bit, but It’s nice to be running up front. … A lot of things happened today. It’s Martinsville. Your head’s hot. You say things you don’t want to mean. Monday morning I’ll talk to everybody and we’ll figure it back out.”

Brad Keselowski, 5th: “It was a good Martinsville race. We had a lot of speed with the Miller Lite Ford on the long runs, but just not quite enough on the short runs to make anything of the Gibbs cars. They were really strong all day. All in all, I’m real proud of my team. We’re starting to get this place where we’re real consistent and can run up front and that’s a good feeling. … There were good battles all across the field. I think there’s a lot to be proud of for the style of racing that we’re seeing as of late. … We want to win, but I think we ran very competitive and that’s something to be proud of.  We’re not happy (with the finish), we’re proud.”

Carl Edwards, 6th: “My guys just do not quit. We were 32nd or 33rd and my guys didn’t give up. We got the fastest pit stops on pit road regardless of where I’m at in the field. Dave Rogers (crew chief) makes great adjustments and by the end we were moving forward, so really cool. We went from basically almost a last place race car to a top-five car at the end – just a super day for our ARRIS Camry.”

Brian Vickers, 7th: “I was pleased but not satisfied. We had such a good car. We were so fast. I don’t know if the track changed or we had different tire codes today. It just wasn’t quite as good as practice all weekend. But I’m really proud of the effort by the guys. We had a great car. It was a top 10. Gosh, we wanted to win this race for Arnie’s Army and everybody. This is a bittersweet special track for me. I lost my best friend here (Ricky Hendrick). I really wanted to win for him. But it was still a good day. We’ll take a seventh and move on. The team is getting stronger every week, really. I’m proud of those guys and it’s going to be a strong team.”

Paul Menard, 8th: “We had a really fast car all weekend, top 10 in all the practice sessions, qualified fourth and drove up and took the lead. Led a little bit and we started with a little bit higher air pressure to start the race. We just gave up too much. Kind of got backwards and then had a set of tires that had a loose wheel, it was back in the middle part of the race and just battled back. Really fast car all weekend. Just trying to tune on it throughout the race.”

Jimmie Johnson, 9th: “The first half of the day we were really good at the end. We had some short run speed, but would fade. Better than last fall (12th), but need to get better yet.”

Ryan Newman, 10th: “Coming into this race I told the team that they had given me the best car I’ve ever had at Martinsville Speedway. … With about 50 to go, we got the break we needed and raced our way back onto the lead lap. A late-race caution allowed us to pit for fresh tires and we were able to race from 17th to a 10th-place finish. … We worked hard this off season and to see all three cars end up in the top 10 says a lot about our organization. Glad to see this team rally back for a top 10 because we had another good car and now a decent finish to reflect it.”

Joey Logano, 11th: “It was frustrating. You want to go out there and win for sure and we just missed it. … I think we know where we missed it, but we didn’t have the tools to fix what we needed to fix. Once the race starts a lot of times your hands are tied because you only have a certain amount of adjustments on your car or even on pit stops that we could fix what our problem was. … “We’ve just got to go back and learn from our mistakes and learn from what happened today. … We come here expecting to run up front and challenge to win and we just weren’t there today, so we’ve just got work to do.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., 14th: “We had a good car. … The car was fun. We had good long run speed. Just didn’t end up working out for us as far as the line we were in on our last restart. The second place guy, we passed him – the No. 20 (Matt Kenseth) – but the guy who started fourth where we would have started if we didn’t pit finished right in front of me. What do you do? If you can’t start in the inside you are screwed.”

Matt Kenseth, 15th: “Yeah, we had a great Dollar General Toyota today. We’ve had fast cars this year, but got shuffled to the back, so disappointing ending but it was an encouraging day. We ran really well, had great pit stops and they gave me fast cars. Hopefully we’ll start getting some finishes soon.”

Danica Patrick, 16th: “Our biggest problem was just we generally had some inconsistency with runs. We would have a good one, then a bad one. … We had a lot of contact with a lot of cars, but I feel like that is also fun to watch. It’s fun to watch as a fan and it makes it fun inside the car.” … You take matters into your own hands pretty easily here at Martinsville. It was all-in-all a pretty decent day for the TaxAct car. I was really hoping when we got inside the top 10 we would hold, but that run it just went loose and that set of tires was a little different. It is what it is.”

Ryan Blaney, 19th: “It was a long day for sure. There were some runs where I thought we were OK and other runs where I thought we were way off. At the end we were just OK and that penalty didn’t help us during that last pit stop. That probably cost us a few spots, but not a bad day for this Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion. Finishing on the lead lap isn’t too bad for coming here for our first time, so it was definitely eventful but there’s a lot we can learn from this race and we can apply it later in the year. … I was pretty courteous today. You don’t want to be the rough guy when it’s your first time and you’re a rookie, so I probably gave a little bit more than I should have took, but maybe we’ll put that in our bank and utilize that in the fall.”

Landon Cassill, 28th: “It didn’t kill us, but it didn’t work out to the favor that we wanted it to, but that’s just part of the risk versus reward. I have a hard time not taking those wavearounds when you have the opportunity. We had a pretty good car, but it still needs to be a little bit better. We’ve got a lot of ideas to keep working on it, so I’m excited to move on to the next one and glad we get to go back to another short track in a couple of weeks.”

Chris Buescher, 33rd: “Martinsville is a tough place and we’ve got a lot of learning to do here. I felt like we got a lot better about halfway through the race and that’s exciting for coming back. We’ll have to wait until the fall and see if it all turns out the way we hope, but we’ll get better next time.”

Denny Hamlin (39th): “It’s my first time ever doing it here (wheel hopping), so it’s a little embarrassing, but I mean we were the fastest car those last 30 laps and we got back to the top-five and I was making up a lot of my speed on entry. As the tires wear, the rears get hotter, less grip, you can’t brake at the same amount and I just – it was really out of the blue. I didn’t ever have a hint of it up until that moment, so a bit of a rookie move on my part. I’ve been around here too much to do something like that, but learning for the fall and I’m really encouraged about how good our car came up through the pack and I really thought we had a car that could win.”

Aric Almirola (40th): “We had a part failure with a part that typically doesn’t break, so I’m not sure.  Doug (Yates) will go back and investigate it and I’m sure they’ll figure something out so it won’t ever happen again.  It was a disappointing end to our day.  We had an okay STP Ford Fusion.  We were making it better and were probably a 15th place car.  Walking out of the track now, I certainly would have taken a 15th place finish because this is gonna put us in a pretty big hole.”

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Long: After 27 years away, lucky charm returned for Martin Truex Jr.’s championship

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HOMESTEAD, Florida — Its origins remain mysterious, just as if the good luck charm really has any power.

But a series of fortunate events followed after it was given by a Los Angeles firefighter to hall of fame drag racer Darrell Gwynn in 1989. After sitting in his trophy case 27 years, Gwynn gave it to Martin Truex Jr. on Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Two days later, Truex pulled the lucky rabbit’s foot from his uniform pocket after winning his first Cup championship.

“That son of a bitch worked!’’ he said.

Was it luck? That would discredit the effort Truex, crew chief Cole Pearn and the rest of the Denver, Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing team did to win Sunday’s season finale.

Even in a year when things seemed to come easy for this team — Truex’s eight victories were the most since Denny Hamlin accomplished that feat in 2010 — this race was a struggle. Truex did not have the strongest car much of the race. He only asserted his strength late in the race when the sun set over South Florida.

He also had help. When title contender Brad Keselowski pitted on Lap 198 of the 267-lap race, Pearn called Truex to pit immediately. Title contender Kevin Harvick followed. They all would have to pit again but with fresh tires so much faster than old tires, it was a move they felt they had to make.

“We hadn’t talked about it a lot, and kind of realized in a split‑second way that that was what we were going to have to do to be something different because one split stop in the run wasn’t going to beat (Kyle Busch) being better than us on the long run.’’

Crew chief Adam Stevens kept Busch on track and in the lead until Lap 215. It was Busch’s last scheduled stop.

But a caution on Lap 229 ruined the strategy for Stevens and Busch. Truex led and Busch was fourth as they entered pit road. Truex exited first and Busch gained a spot to third but it meant he would restart on the inside of the second row. The outside line — where Truex chose to start as the leader — was the preferred line. Busch lost two spots on the restart and fell to fifth with 34 laps to go.

While Busch charged, he couldn’t get close enough to Truex make a move for the win and finished second.

“I just found a line that worked for my car with 20 laps to go that I couldn’t find all day long,’’ Truex said. “Not only did it help my car but it hurt Kyle’s car. He got to second, and when he did, he was three, four tenths (of a second) faster than I was before I found the line, and that was the difference.

“Just found it when I needed it. The timing was right, and we made it happen.’’

When the white flag flew for the final lap and Truex knew the race was “over.’’

The next time he came by, he scored the win and the championship by leading his 78th lap of the race in the No. 78 car.

“Are you serious, 78 laps?’’ Truex said when informed of that.

“You know, some things are just meant to be, I guess. That’s all you can say. Last year wasn’t meant to be. We worked just as hard as we did this year, and this year just it all came together. It felt right. It was our time, and that’s proof right there, there is a higher power.’’

And maybe the power of a rabbit’s foot.

Gwynn’s lucky charm came from a friend who often volunteered to work for Gwynn’s drag racing team at the California races. The first time he showed up at Pomona to work with the team, they won. One year, the friend took the rabbit’s foot to Pomona and rubbed the starting line with it. Gwynn won.

He doesn’t know where the rabbit’s foot came from but knows sometimes a little luck doesn’t hurt. His friend later convinced Gwynn to put it in his dragster at the 1989 U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. Gwynn qualified first, set the national record and won the title. The next week, Gwynn dominated the Keystone Nationals in Pennsylvania. He won the Gatornationals in early 1990 with the rabbit’s foot in the car.

Gwynn didn’t have it when he suffered life-threatening injures in an April 1990 crash in England that has left him in a wheelchair since.

“After I got hurt, the rabbit’s foot meant so much to me,’’ Gwynn told NBC Sports. “I took it out of my car and put it in my trophy case. This week, I had it hanging in my garage. I got a text from Martin and I asked him, ‘Hey can I count on you to fish in the tournament (at Homestead on Friday). Martin’s answer is always ‘Of course you can count on me.’

“It just made me think a little of Martin as a person. As I was going out of my garage, I saw the rabbit’s foot there and I said I know somebody who can use that this weekend. He’s been running good all year long but he needs some luck here because the way the format is, it’s all down to one (race). I took it out of the trophy case after 27 years.

“The deal was if it worked, he got to keep it. If it didn’t work, I got it back for sentimental reasons. I’m glad it worked. I wanted to him to win. I love his story. I love him.’’

Truex, though, is blunt about his belief in such items.

“I don’t believe in lucky charms,’’ he said. “I don’t have superstitions.’’

So why did he take the rabbit’s foot?

“I carried it because I respect Darrell a lot,’’ Truex said. “He’s a good friend of mine, and the fact that it meant enough to him ‑ this weekend meant enough to him for him to take something out of his trophy case after 27 years that he really believed would help me, I was going to put it in my damned pocket. Period. End of story.’’

And there it was as Truex celebrated his title.

“Whether this rabbit’s foot contributed to this win or not,’’ Gwynn said, “the fact is he won and to me that’s what I wanted to see happen this weekend.’’

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Emotional year helped inspire Martin Truex Jr. to championship

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Martin Truex Jr. felt he could only do so much in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400. But if he was to win his first career NASCAR Cup championship, he was going to need some help.

Following all of Sunday’s post-victory celebrations, Truex and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex joined Krista Voda, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett on the NBC stage.

And that’s when Truex revealed he did what he could, but he left the outcome in the hands of a higher power.

“I’ve learned along the way that God has a plan, you never know what it’s going to be and sometimes, it’s your time,” Truex said. “This year felt like our year. Everything went the way we needed it to go. We worked hard, we worked our butts to get here.

“But at the end of the day, there is a higher power. And we worked hard, had faith in each other and had each other’s backs through thick and thin, no matter what it was.

“I’m just so thankful for (owner Barney Visser), his team, what he’s built and believing in me, four years ago when we were just awful. … The whole team is just a big family and it was just meant to be, I guess.

“There was a long time in this race where I thought, ‘This is tough, I don’t know how we’re going to get better,’ but I kept digging and telling them what I needed. Cole made the decision to change his pit strategy, caution comes out and we get the lead, and it’s ‘alright, it’s in my hands. I’ve gotta find it.’

“They were better than me all night long and I found something. I didn’t know if it was there, but I went and looked for it and I found it. Unbelievable.”

Even with the eight wins and now the championship, it’s still been a trying year for Furniture Row Racing. Crew chief Cole Pearn lost his best friend, Jacob Damen, to a bacterial infection in early August at the age of 35.

There also was the loss of team fabricator Jim Watson on Oct. 21, who died of a heart attack while the team was in Kansas City for that weekend’s playoff race.

And then Visser suffered a heart attack Nov. 4 and then underwent bypass surgery two days later. He’s still recovering, so much so that his doctors forbade him from traveling to Homestead and didn’t even allow him to watch the race on TV (he got updates via text throughout the event).

But the most emotional and difficult time of the season for Truex was what Pollex underwent. Pollex had been in remission from ovarian cancer, only to have it recur in early July.

Through Truex’s path to the championship, Pollex has continued to undergo chemotherapy treatment. It was the inner strength from her medical battle that proved to be an inspiration for Truex.

“I thought about this moment so many times but I couldn’t let myself get there because the emotions were just so strong after everything we’ve been through,” Pollex said. “To hear (Truex) say that, he understands now that there’s a bigger picture and God has a bigger plan for us, and that this is where we’re supposed to be, to help and inspire other people at home that are going through any struggle in their life, not just cancer, but everybody’s going through something.

“I feel like God put us in this place for a reason. I don’t want to have cancer, but I do, and I’m going to use my platform to help other people through our foundation and ‘#SherryStrong’ and I think we’ve done that this year.

“I tell him all the time that if you inspire and do things for other people, good things are going to happen to you one day and I truly believe that. I knew that in the end, they were going to come out a winner and it was amazing to be part of it tonight.”

Catch the entire interview with Truex and Pollex in the video above.

Matt Kenseth after potential final Cup start: ‘I did the best I could every week’

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While Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave one of his last TV interviews as a Cup driver in the middle of a loud throng of crew members and fans, Matt Kenseth‘s was typical of the 2003 Cup champion.

After finishing eighth, the 45-year-old driver spoke to NBC’s Kelli Stavast in a much quieter part of pit road by himself.

A week after his emotional win at Phoenix, Kenseth said he “didn’t think about much in the last 20 laps” of the Ford EcoBoost 400, likely the last race of his NASCAR career.

The only thing on his mind was “getting by the 2 car” of Brad Keselowski for one more position.

“Obviously, last week was a magical week or race – to win that race and then this week has been really fun,” said Kenseth, who won his 39th Cup race last Sunday. “The pre-race stuff was really fun. I was glad Katie (wife) was able to get down here and all and having the kids here, my dad, my sister and everybody.

“It was really fun, obviously, what DeWalt did with this paint job and Habitat for Humanity, but doing my rookie paint job was cool as well. So it was a really cool day.”

Kenseth and Earnhardt each drove the paint schemes from their 2000 rookie years. Before the race, Kenseth and Earnhardt’s cars were placed together on the starting grid so the long-time friends could take in the moment together.

Two hundred and sixty-seven laps later, Earnhardt finished 25th, three laps down. Kenseth took his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Toyota to his 327th top-10 finish.

His Phoenix win gave him 181 top fives.

Kenseth was asked what he hoped his legacy, which spans more than 20 years on the NASCAR circuit, would turn out to be.

“Some people are going to like you, some people aren’t,” Kenseth said “Some people are going to respect you, some people won’t. So I mean, whatever people think, they think. I did the best I could every week. Didn’t always do the right thing, that’s for sure, but raced as hard as I could and at the time I always felt like I was trying to do the right thing and gave it my all every time I went to the race track, so that’s all I could do.”

Watch the above video for the full interview.

Cup Championship drivers sound off after Miami finale

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Martin Truex Jr. triumphed over his three championship contenders Sunday night in the Ford EcoBoost 400, claiming the title against Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski.

The 37-year-old driver earned the title in his 12th full-time Cup season.

NBC talked with all four championship drivers following the race. Watch the above video for Truex’s first interview as a Cup champion. Below are interviews with the three other drivers.

Kyle Busch

Busch may have had the fastest car at the end of the race, but in the closing laps he was held up for an extended period of time by Joey Logano. He eventually got by the No. 22 Ford, but ran out of time to get around Truex and finished second in the race and the championship standings.

Busch shared his frustration with how Logano raced him when he talked to NBC.

Kevin Harvick

Harvick finished fourth in the race and third in the title standings. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver was in the Championship 4 for the third time and put SHR within reach of a title in its first year with Ford. Harvick was the only one of the four title contenders who didn’t lead a lap Sunday afternoon.

Brad Keselowski

Keselowski led one lap in the race and finished seventh in his first time in the Championship 4. Keselowski said the No. 2 team “threw everything we could at it” but couldn’t find enough speed to challenge the Toyotas of Truex and Busch. The Team Penske driver later lamented that non-Toyota teams didn’t have much of a chance to win the title.