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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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Brad Keselowski takes ‘torn to pieces’ car and finishes second in Auto Club 400

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Brad Keselowski was the only driver in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 who played in the grass and dirt and it wasn’t willingly.

In any other instance, this story likely has a disappointing ending.

However, when Keselowski climbed out of his N0. 2 Ford at race’s end to survey his mangled left-rear fender, he was doing so after finishing ahead of 37 other drivers in a 39-car field. The only driver ahead of him was Kyle Larson

Keselowski earned his fourth top five of the season after he went sliding through the front stretch grass on Lap 4 of the 202-lap race. The slide was a result of contact with Jimmie Johnson after Keselowski fell from third to 17th place in the first three laps. His drop came after the inside lane bottlenecked at the start, causing Ryan Newman to run into Keselowski’s rear bumper.

“I wanted to win but I got out of the car and looked at the damage and this thing is torn to pieces,” Keselowski told Fox Sports. “I feel lucky to get second. Curious to see what we could’ve done if we weren’t torn up.”

The perseverance of Team Penske’s No. 2 team occurred without its leader, crew chief Paul Wolfe. Wolfe was serving the first of a three-race suspension after the No. 2 failed post-race inspection at Phoenix last week.

Keselowski and his damaged ride earned his second top five in three years at the 2-mile track. He never finished better than 18th in his first six starts at the track built by team owner Roger Penske.

“Glad I got the race on record on the DVR so I can see it,” Keselowski said later in a press conference. “We really turned a corner here.  The first few races I ran here, we were awful.  I think I learned a lot, the team learned a lot. Have put together just a much more robust effort for this type of track. I like coming to places we run well.  But beyond that, I think this track is known for having great races and great racing.  I thought we saw that here at the end today.  It’s fun to be a part of those races.”

Keselowski had an average running spot of 15.5. The No. 2 was one of the first cars a lap down at the end of the first stage, but was 10th at the end of the second stage on Lap 120. At the end of the afternoon, he had spent 117 laps in the top 15.

On the overtime restart, Keselowski found himself in third, exactly where he began the race.

“I don’t know if I would have had a shot at Kyle, but I’d like to have seen,” Keselowksi said of Larson. “We came from third on that last one, a couple of three‑wide passes and whatnot, because Kyle was smart. He picked the outside lane, kind of pinned me behind a guy that had older tires.

“By the time I cleared everybody, Kyle was just too far gone.”

Meanwhile, the other drivers damaged on the race’s initial start also bounced back, albeit with cars that were covered in duct tape. Newman finished 15th while Kevin Harvick finished 13th. Both were on the lead lap.

Keselowski ends his “West Coast Swing” second in the points behind Larson. He’s been in the top three for four of the first five races.

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Clint Bowyer scores first top-five finish since 2015

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A day after telling reporters that “we have to get in the top 10, this is a top-10 company,’’ Clint Bowyer finished third Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.

It marked his first top-five finish since joining Stewart-Haas Racing before this season and was his first top five since placing fifth in the August 2015 Bristol night race for Michael Waltrip Racing.

“It was a good weekend for us,’’ said Bowyer, who finished sixth in Stage 1 and fourth in Stage 2. “We never showed the speed in practice, but I wasn’t worried about it because I knew the car was really comfortable on the long run and things like that.’’

Bowyer went from sixth to third in overtime, taking advantage of starting on the outside lane, the preferred lane. Bowyer passed Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney in overtime to score the top-three result.

With the finish, Bowyer climbed seven spots in the NASCAR Cup standings to eighth.

Bowyer was the only Stewart-Haas Racing driver to place in the top 10. Kevin Harvick suffered damage at the start of the race when Hamlin was slow to get going and placed 13th. Kurt Busch battled handling issues and finished 24th. Danica Patrick also had her struggles and was scored in 26th.

Bowyer excelled Sunday because his car was so good on the apron in Turns 3 and 4, something that caught him by surprise.

“One thing that I didn’t see today that we’ve seen in years past is just that rim riding … around the outside,’’  he said. “You saw it that first run. Man, I could get down and kind of split the apron in three and four. I could see that I was better than them down there. If I could keep that going throughout the run, you know, I knew that was going to be an advantage when it comes down to these cautions and everything else, the restarts that we saw at the end.

“Everybody else catches on and figures that out. But that was something that was a little bit different from practice sessions and everything else. I mean, I don’t think I left, you know, the fourth and fifth groove in practice the whole weekend. I think the third groove was the lowest I was in practice, even qualifying. Then all of a sudden you start the race, and you’re straddling the apron and running on the bottom and everything else.

“That’s just what is cool about this racetrack. You got to be able to adapt, you got to be able to have the car free enough across the center so that you can throttle through the corners, not too tight, and tight enough that the rear doesn’t come out from underneath you. It’s a constant battle balancing those tires and taking care of those tires, as well.’’

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What drivers said after the Auto Club 400

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Kyle Larson stayed in control during an overtime restart to win Sunday’s Auto Club 400 for his second Cup Series win.

Here’s what Larson and the rest of the field had to say after the fifth race of the season.

KYLE LARSON – winner: “I was staying as calm as I could be but also (was) frustrated at the same time.  It seems like every time I get to the lead at the end of one of these things, the caution comes out, and I’ve got to fight people off on restarts.  Our Target Chevy was amazing all day.  We were able to lead a lot of laps today.  (Martin) Truex was better than us that second stage by quite a bit.  We were able to get the jump on him the following restart and led pretty much the rest of the distance.  I had to fight them off there after the green-flag stops, and that was a lot of fun. … This is just amazing.  We have been so good all year long, three seconds in a row.  I’ve been watching all the TV like, ‘He doesn’t know how to win,’ but we knew how to win today, so that was good.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished second: “Just great perseverance by the No. 2 team here with the Wurth Ford Fusion. I wanted to win, but I got out of the car and looked at the damage, and this thing is torn to pieces. I feel lucky to get second. Curious to see what we could’ve done if we weren’t torn up. But great day for us to really persevere. You’re just going to have that in a 36-race season.”

Clint Bowyer – Third: “It was a good weekend for us.  We never showed the speed in practice, but I wasn’t worried about it because I knew the car was really comfortable on the long run and things like that.  I was proud of the effort that Buga and all the guys give me each and every week.  I’m proud to have Rush Truck Centers on our car this weekend.  It’s just a great sponsor and a fun guy.  I’m just having fun again.  That’s what it’s about.”

Martin Truex Jr. – Fourth: “We were right there all day long. I felt like (Kyle Larson) had everybody covered. It was just a matter of who got out front and got clean air. Toward the end, we had a little trouble in the pits. We didn’t take tires, everybody else did, and we were at a big disadvantage those last couple restarts. Definitely happy to come out of here with a fourth with the tires we had on the car at the end. It was a good day, and we have fast cars, and we’ll continue to work on them.”

Joey Logano – Fifth: “It was up and down for sure.  Our car was really good on the short runs just like yesterday. Our car was good on the short runs and not good on the long runs. We would lose too much time. We tried to short-pit them and got caught with the caution and got stuck down a lap with 20 to go or so.  We were able to recover, and at one point, I thought we were going to win the race and had some trouble on pit road and lost some spots again, but we were able to make some of them back up and end up with a top five out of it with the Auto Club Fusion. It was up and down to say the least for the whole weekend for me.”

Jamie McMurray – Sixth: “Our team and our whole organization has done an amazing job to get to the point that we are. It’s not one thing; it’s hundreds of small things. I’m so happy for all the guys at our shop that have worked hard. In our sport, every team works hard; and you’re not always rewarded for it. It’s awesome to be rewarded for all the work.”

Daniel Suarez – Seventh: “I think the result is very good. That’s exactly what we are here for, but we have to keep working the race in general. I feel like we were not great – we were just OK – and then in the last couple of rounds in the last couple adjustments, the car was much, much better. I wish it was like that the whole race, and if it was going to be like, we were going to be running in the top 10 like we finished the entire race. We have to keep working. I know that there is room to improve it still, but for now we’ll take the top 10.”

Ryan Blaney – Ninth: “I thought we were not great at the beginning, kind of faded at the end of the first stage.  I thought at the beginning of the first stage, we were really good.  We drove up there. In the early part, we seemed to fade late in runs. In the middle part, we had equipment leave the pit box, and that put us in a big hole back there, but we did a good job fighting back, putting ourselves in a decent position to have a good finish and a decent shot at (the win). Most restarts worked in our favor except the last one. We just got put three wide there and kind of got hurt. Overall not a bad day for us coming back from that pit-road penalty. That was pretty good.”

Chase Elliott – 10th: “We were just trying to do something different. I thought (the unscheduled late pit stop) was going to give us the best chance of winning. (Crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) did as well. We had a good NAPA Chevy, and we were on the same page. He made the right call. And you can’t control when the caution comes out. So that’s just part of it.”

Austin Dillon – 11th: “I wish we could have done more with the position we were in with tires. On the outside lane, we cannot fire off the first couple of laps.  We struggle with that, and I’m going to start practicing it and figuring out why we can’t turn. I’m proud of my guys, but I guess we just wanted more.”

Erik Jones – 12th: “We were fast. We just don’t complete the races that well, so we have to go to work and get a little bit better and figure out how we ran all day.”

Kevin Harvick – 13th: “I feel like we won. Those are the days that championships are made out of right there. To wreck before we even get to the start-finish line, I don’t know exactly what happened in front of me, but, obviously, we got a caved-in grille. They did a great job fixing it. We got some wavearounds and made the car better and made something out of the day. That’s why these guys are who they are and won championships and races because they can make days like that happen.”

Denny Hamlin – 14th: “Race was pretty good. Our cars were a little bit slow overall. I mean, that’s the biggest thing now is that our car’s just slow. We’ve got to work on that and try to get our balance a little better and get out engines a little bit better, and we’ll be all right.”

Ryan Newman– 15th: “It was a tough and long day for us. We got a hole in the front nose on the first lap that cost us our track position. Then we battled an extremely tight-handling car that put us a lap down. We finally raced back onto the lead lap with 19 to go. It certainly wasn’t the finish we wanted, but it was a decent recovery.”

A.J. Allmendinger – 17th: “We definitely started off really loose which, kind of thought we might just go into the race just trying to get on the other side of it.  I was still a little bit tight trying to roll the center, which is kind of where we have been struggling a little bit, but made good adjustments and thought we got the car as good as we could have gotten it.  It was kind of right in that area.  I thought we maximized the speed of the car today and wish we would have had one less yellow.  I really thought I had made a good move and gotten clear of the next group behind me and thought maybe we would pick off a couple more.”

Ty Dillon – 18th: “My No. 13 Chevrolet team fought hard all day. We really struggled with the balance in the first two stages. I was tight through the center and loose on exit. Crew chief Bootie Barker worked with different adjustments to get us where we needed to be. Our Chevy SS was the best it had been all day there in that last segment. We made a strategy call and stretched our gas mileage to try and make it with only one green-flag stop to end the race while the leaders would need another, but late-race cautions kept that from working. We battled hard and, despite handling issues, it was a good end to the day.”

Aric Almirola – 19th: “We struggled. We just don’t have the overall grip and speed in our cars, but we’re working hard. Everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports has been working really hard.  It’s a big improvement from Atlanta.  We gained on it when we went to Vegas and then we’ve kind of gotten flat and stagnant and we haven’t been making as many gains and strides since Atlanta, so we still have some work to do.  I’m proud of the effort. We just have to dig deep.  We have to keep working hard and get speed in our car and more grip in our car so we can go and compete.”

Jimmie Johnson – 21st: “Man, we definitely didn’t have the fastest car out there today. I think we used up all the good luck in the season finale last season. We battled all day long to get back on the lead lap, but we have got some work to do.  I’m looking forward to spending the week with my girls and heading to Martinsville next weekend with this Lowe’s team.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – 22nd: ”It’s just unfortunate. Our Fastenal Ford started out tight early on in the runs but would come around later in the run, and we were able to pass some cars. Overall we had a solid day, and the pit crew did a great job on pit-road just unfortunate we didn’t get the finish we deserved.”

Trevor Bayne –  23rd: “I hate that that happened at the end of the race. We had a really fast AdvoCare Ford all race long and were able to really make some gains and passes out there. It’s just unfortunate that our day ended the way it did. We’ll recover from this and get after it next week in Martinsville.”

Chris Buescher – 25th: “It was a long afternoon in our No. 37 BUSH’s Beans Chevy. We got a decent starting spot but got shuffled back early and struggled to gain spots back. Then on the last restart, everyone got fanned out from another car getting in the wall, and we just lost all momentum. Next week, we’ve got a completely different setup as we go short-track racing, and I’m looking forward to racing with the short-track program at JTG Daugherty Racing.”

Matt Kenseth – 36th: “Yeah, I’m fine. I just didn’t do the best job getting through the gears, and I think (Jamie McMurray) got stuck outside of me, so I was trying to leave room for him on the top, and then I just got hit in the left-rear quarter panel off of Turn 2 and got spun out, and I was just kind of along for the ride.”f

Kyle Larson extends points lead after California win

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Kyle Larson padded his points lead Sunday after winning the opening stage, finishing second in the second stage and then winning the NASCAR Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.

Larson has a 29-point lead on Chase Elliott heading to next Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway. Martin Truex Jr. is 38 points behind Larson, Brad Keselowski is 64 points behind Larson and Joey Logano is 69 points behind Larson.

Larson scored 59 of a maximum 60 points Sunday.

Click here for NASCAR Cup points