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Xfinity Series spotlight: Blake Koch

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Growing up in West Palm Beach, Florida, Blake Koch was more interested in attempting a career in Motocross and Supercross than NASCAR.

Enter his stepfather, Tim Kirkland.

“He was a big NASCAR fan the whole time I was growing up, and they used to watch the races and when I was about … 19, 20 years old he had the opportunity to buy a racecar in Florida, just a local Saturday night short track truck,” Koch told NBC Sports. “He bought it, and asked me if I wanted to drive it, and I said sure, and I tried driving a racecar for the first time in my life when I was 20 and absolutely fell in love with it.”

Calling it the coolest thing he has ever done, Koch quickly fell in love with the speed and adrenaline rush. He was enamored with the team aspect of the sport, which sees a group working on the car together, going racing, and then trying to improve on it before the next event.

“I won my first race probably my fifth race ever and had some people say I could really make something of this, and I took that to heart and pursued becoming a NASCAR driver,” Koch said.

His career started in the Richard Childress Racing development driver program where Koch competed in the K&N Pro Series West in 2009. He has been full-time in the Xfinity Series since 2011, the same year he moved to North Carolina.

This year, Koch is driving for Kaulig Racing, a new team started by LeafFliter Gutter Protection President and owner Matt Kaulig. LeafFliter is also the sponsor on the No. 11 Chevrolet and Kaulig is the man Koch credits for turning his career around.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: How would you explain who Blake Koch is if you were meeting new fans?

Koch: I would say Blake Koch is all about family, about being a godly husband, a godly father. I work very, very hard to be the best father I can possibly be, the best husband I could possibly be but also the fastest racecar driver I could possibly be. I have the reputation of being one of the nicest guys in the garage, but you can’t mistake my niceness for weakness because when I’m on the track, and it’s time to go, I get pretty intense. I want nothing more than to win these races more than anybody. So, I would say a lot of people don’t know how much I do care about my marriage and my parenting and stuff like that. That definitely comes first, but I also get to drive racecars, which is the coolest thing ever.

NBC Sports: What do you enjoy doing away from the racetrack?

Koch: I like to do some hunting in the offseason and also stay in shape. Eat well, work out, do the MMA training, that’s been really helping me over a year now just to stay in great shape and stay confident in myself. It’s just a very cool sport, and I’m big into watching the UFC fights.

NBC Sports: What do you remember about your first NASCAR race?

Koch: My first K&N race I was so nervous I couldn’t even breathe. I got on the racetrack and went out for qualifying and it was my first time being on television – it was covered by SPEED at the time – and I qualified fourth, and that really was just huge for me at the time. Got that out of my system and ever since then I think I probably get equally as nervous every week for qualifying. Not because of the pressure or the TV but because I want to do well for my team, all my guys that work so hard, and my sponsors. So that nervousness has not gone away at all. The other thing I remember about my first Xfinity start was that the team was telling me don’t crash, whatever you do don’t crash, we just have to finish this race. I went out for practice at Memphis and first lap I went through Turn 3 and 4 coming to the green, and I was dead sideways about to crash. I was looking at pit road entrance, and I saved it somehow and didn’t crash, but I’ll never forget that feeling.

NBC Sports: You have been very open about your faith, but is it correct you lost a sponsorship early in your career because of that?

Koch: I’m very outspoken about my faith, it’s something that I’m not willing to hide. There was this campaign within politics, and somebody didn’t like that I was a Christian and pushing voting. They couldn’t activate, and they wanted to activate, and the sponsor pulled out and that was a life-changing situation for me. My wife was three months pregnant, we just bought a house, and I lost my job. So you really go through some trials, and that was one of the biggest trials in life, figuring out what I was going to do at that point, and I decided to keep pursuing racing. I started doing whatever I had to do to pay the bills. I was driving my friend’s motorhome to the racetrack; I was spotting in the Cup Series; I was start and parking a truck, Xfinity car, whatever I had to do to stay at the track that weekend. Man, it was really a struggle in my career until October 2014 when I got to drive that Sprint Cup (car) for Go Fas Racing with LeafFliter sponsorship. I got to meet Matt Kaulig with LeafFliter, and those guys had a great time; developed that relationship and Matt Kaulig has turned my career around.

NBC Sports: When and why were you moved to dedicated your life to your faith?

Koch: When I was 12 years old I went to youth group camp in Tampa, Florida, and it was really my first time going to an event with the intentions of telling you about Jesus. When I went there, and I heard all the pastors talking just about how that worked and how that looked, it was definitely something I wanted to be a part of. So when I was 12 years old, I made that commitment to become a Christian. Why I became a Christian is because God created this Earth, he sent his son down to die on the cross for our sins and to get to heaven all you have to do is believe in Jesus Christ and believe he died on the cross for our sins, and that’s what I believe. It just totally makes sense to me, and I would never even think of something other than that to live by.

NBC Sports: Statistically you are having your best season in the Xfinity Series, what is going right at Kaulig Racing?

Koch: Matt (Kaulig) has shown his dedicated to the sport by just being fully invested. We own our race shop; we’re not leasing it, and he just came in all in and wants to make it happen and go fast. I know before this year I had like two top-15 finishes ever out of over 100 starts and this year I think I have over 10 top-15 finishes in the first 21 races and two top 10s, the first of my career. Our average qualifying effort right now is like 14th or something, and that’s pretty impressive to have an average of a 14thplace qualifying effort, that means we’re competing for that third round every single week, and that’s something to be proud of. When you go to the racetrack every week, and you have goals to be in the top 10 those are realistic goals, but it’s going to take some time for us to be a consistent top-10 car because you have to beat some of those major, major Cup teams that have been in business for a long time. The advantage they have over us isn’t really anything but just time. A lot of the same people have been working together for a long time, they have the driver/crew chief chemistry, which me and Chris (Rice) are getting better at every week, so I think with some time and a couple years down the road you’ll see us competing for a championship because we also have that alliance with RCR that gives us the opportunity to have all the resources we need to keep going fast.

NBC Sport: Who do you compare Kaulig Racing to in the Sprint Cup Series?

Koch: You know how Furniture Row is in the Cup Series – they’ve always been considered an underdog team, but they have a lot of resources, they have a lot of money, and they have a great alliance, and I think that’s the kind of race team that we will be in the Xfinity Series. I don’t think you’ll see us in the Cup Series; I think you’ll see us here in Xfinity for a long time, and we want to be that team that comes out of nowhere, but we have all the resources, and we have all the relationships to go out there to compete for wins. So I think you’ll see us as kind of the Furniture Row of the Xfinity Series.

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Former champions battling to stay alive in Cup playoffs

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Title hopes could end today for more than one series champion.

Former champ Jimmie Johnson holds that final transfer spot to the next round, but he leads former champion Kyle Busch by seven points and former champion Matt Kenseth by eight points.

“This is our first Homestead of this year,’’ Busch said, referring to the season finale that determines the crown. “We’ve got to come through this race. It’s not a must-win, but it is a must-perform.’’

It will be challenging because Busch, Johnson and Kenseth are all strong at this track.

Johnson’s three wins at Kansas are the most among active drivers. Busch has finished in the top five in five consecutive Kansas races. Kenseth has led 269 of the 536 laps (50.2 percent) run in this event the past two years.

That makes Sunday’s elimination race (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) even more intriguing.

Johnson, who is in his first bid to break a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most Cup championships, finds himself in this spot because of a lack of speed. It’s hurt him in qualifying, costing him stage points, and hurt him throughout the race.

“We are a team and a group that thrives on adversity,’’ said Johnson, who noted he was the slowest of the championship cars last year in Miami and still won his record-tying seventh title.

“Whenever we have been backed into a corner we have always stepped up and have delivered. All the members of this No. 48 team love a challenge, and we are not even close to losing that desire and that fight to be out there and compete and race for the win and race for the championship.’’

Mistakes have plagued the team the past two weeks. At Charlotte, Johnson took off before all the lug nuts were secured on the left front tire and had to back up to have that remedied, losing time. Last week, spotter Earl Barban told the team they could begin work on Johnson’s wrecked car before the red flag was withdrawn. NASCAR parked the team for the infraction.

“There are lessons learned in everything,’’ Johnson said. “When I think of the Charlotte pit stop itself and I think of Talladega and the mistake there that Earl made, really all mistakes come from guys trying as hard as they can. 

“I personally have sympathy for that. I mean, the guys are just trying to do the best job they can and everybody makes mistakes. I make plenty of them, and I think Fridays show that on a regular basis. It’s hard for me to jump on somebody over that.  What I ask of myself is to learn from those lessons and try not to repeat them.’’

Kenseth, winless in his last 48 starts, has a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota but his team has seemed to be the weakest of JGR’s playoff teams throughout the postseason.

“If we don’t run good Sunday, then we don’t deserve to be in the next round anyway,’’ Kenseth said Friday.

Kenseth lamented the performance he and his team had at Kansas in May, finishing 12th.

“You’re only as good as your last race,’’ he said. “Our last one here we ran really, really bad.

Kenseth suggests he might have to knock someone else out of a playoff spot if Kyle Busch runs like he’s capable.

“If I’m Kyle (Busch), I’m feeling pretty good,’’ Kenseth said of his teammate. “He’s crashed two weeks in a row and he’s still in (playoff contention). That’s pretty amazing. Plus he’s been running so good, it’s one of his better places now. So I wouldn’t be very concerned if I was Kyle, I guess, because he’s had the performance.

“Now, (Jimmie Johnson) hasn’t run quite as good as he’s accustomed to running. We haven’t run as good as we’re accustomed to running.”

That Busch is so close after a miserable round (29th at Charlotte and 27th at Talladega) is because he has so many more playoff and stage points than Johnson and Kenseth.

Busch has 41 playoff points. Johnson has 17 and Kenseth five.

Busch’s job is simple he says.

“I look at it as out-finishing (Johnson) and (Blaney) by three, four spots each stage, each round, in order to make up enough points to pass them both,’’ he said. “Whether that’s doable or not, we’ll see. We’ll certainly try. We’ll fight hard, hopefully run up front all day long. We’ve done that this year. We did that here in the spring. We just need to back it up and do it again when it’s crunch time.”

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Justin Allgaier leads Xfinity playoff standings after first race of second round

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Justin Allgaier and two of his JR Motorsports teammates lead the Xfinity playoff standings after the first second round race, the Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway.

Allgaier holds a two-point lead over William Byron and a 11-point lead over Elliott Sadler after finishing fifth in the race.

The top five is completed by Brennan Poole (-28) and Matt Tifft (-33).

Only four of the remaining eight drivers will advance to the championship race.

Click here for the point standings.

Stats, results for Xfinity race at Kansas Speedway

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Christopher Bell claimed his first Xfinity Series win in the Kansas Lottery 300 after passing his teammate, Erik Jones, with four laps left in the race at Kansas Speedway.

Bell only led the final four laps after Jones led 186.

Completing the top five was Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for results.

 

Christopher Bell wins first career Xfinity Series race at Kansas

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Christopher Bell passed teammate Erik Jones for the lead with four laps left in the Kansas Lottery 300, withstood contact from behind by Jones and claimed his first career Xfinity Series win.

Bell, driving the No. 18 Toyota, won in his fifth career start. It comes in the opening race of the second round of the playoffs.

Bell passed Jones in Turn 3 and drifted up to the wall as they exited Turn 4, where Jones then ran into him.

“I haven’t seen it so I can’t really talk much about it,” Bell told NBC. “But I never want to wreck anyone, especially my teammate. I don’t know. My spotter said clear, I drove it in really deep. I felt like I cleared him (watches replay). I don’t know man, I was clear. It’s my first Xfinity win. I’m sorry that Erik couldn’t finish the race. But I’m just stoked. This thing was awesome.”

Jones dominated the race until the pass by Bell. Jones led 186 of 200 laps and swept the first two stages. He finished 15th, one lap down due to damage from running into the back of Bell.

“It’s not dirt racing, he (wasn’t) clear,” Jones told NBC. “I can’t just stop on the top. I didn’t expect him to drive in on the bottom so far he wouldn’t be able to hold his lane. It’s unfortunate. … I thought we were going to race for the win. Unfortunately there wasn’t much of a race. It was more of a wreck.”

Jones has not finished better than 15th in his last four Xfinity starts.

It is the first win for Joe Gibbs Racing since Denny Hamlin won at Darlington Raceway, a five-race stretch. JGR has won 11 Xfinity races this season.

Bell, 22, is a full-time driver in the Camping World Truck Series. He will race full-time for JGR in the Xfinity Series next year.

The top five was Bell, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Justin Allgaier.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Erik Jones

STAGE 2 WINNER: Erik Jones

MORE: Race results

MORE: Points standings

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Elliott Sadler finished seventh after bouncing back from a spin in Turn 4 on Lap 77 and a pit penalty … Tyler Reddick gave the No. 42 Chevrolet its fourth top-two finish in the last five races … William Byron finished fourth and Matt Tifft placed eighth after both had to start from the rear for unapproved adjustments.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: Daniel Hemric finished 18th, a lap down after receiving a penalty for pitting outside his box … Blake Koch finished 23rd, four laps down after getting into the wall with about 35 laps to go … Cole Custer finished 19th, two laps down after pitting for a bad tire with less than five laps to go.

NOTABLE: The 186 laps led by Erik Jones are his most in 75 career Xfinity starts … The cars of Matt Tifft and Ryan Blaney each had one unsecured lug nut after the race. Any penalties will be announced later in the week.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I just don’t think that’s the way to do it. I get that (Christopher Bell) was clear. He wasn’t clear for the run I was having on the top. I was in the gas. There was no way I could slow up enough to let him. It’s just unfortunate. It took me out of the race. … I just don’t really appreciate that. I don’t think many people will.’’ – Erik Jones

WHAT’S NEXT: O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway at 8:30 p.m. ET on Nov. 4 on NBCSN