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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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ThorSport Racing partners with Ford in Truck Series

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ThorSport Racing has partnered with Ford in a multi-year deal in the Camping World Truck Series, the team announced Monday.

The team’s announcement comes a week after it revealed the mutual decision to part ways with Toyota.

“With 23 years in the NCWTS, we look forward to our new partnership with Ford Performance in NASCAR,” team owner Duke Thorson said in a press release. “Our pursuit of wins and championships remains at the forefront of our objectives.”

ThorSport, based in Sandusky, Ohio, had been paired with the Toyota for six years, winning two titles with Matt Crafton.

“We’re excited that ThorSport Racing has decided to switch to a F-Series truck for the 2018 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports in a press release. “ThorSport is a proven championship-level team in the series, and we look forward to providing them the aero and simulation technical support that will ensure they remain at the top level of the Truck Series.”

In 2017, Brad Keselowski Racing fielded the only two full-time Ford entries in the series. That team shut down following the end of the season.

Crafton will be returning to ThorSport for his 17th season – and 14th consecutive – with the team. The rest of the team’s driver lineup will be announced at a later date.

The Truck Series season begins Feb. 16th at Daytona International Speedway.

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D.J. Kennington to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500 with Gaunt Brothers Racing

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Canadian driver D.J. Kennington will try to qualify for the Daytona 500 with Gaunt Brothers Racing for the second year in a row, the team announced Monday.

Kennington, a native of St. Thomas, Ontario, will drive the No. 96 Toyota sponsored by Lordco Auto Parts and Castrol.

The team, sponsor and driver combination made the 2017 edition of the race, making Kennington the first Canadian driver to compete in the Daytona 500 in 29 years.

Kennington started 28th and finished 36th following a multi-car crash at the start of Stage 2.

“Last year was an awesome experience for my sponsors, Lordco and Castrol, and me,” Kennington said in a press release. “We knew once it was over, we wanted to do it again. (Team owner) Marty (Gaunt) and everybody at GBR is pulling out all the stops for us this year. I’m looking forward to getting back behind the wheel of the Lordco/Castrol Toyota Camry and seeing the difference a year makes.”

The 40-year-old driver has five Cup starts with a best finish of 26th in last November’s race at Phoenix.

Gaunt Brothers Racing does not own a charter, meaning Kennington is not guaranteed a starting spot in the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.

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Love’s Travel Stops returns as Front Row Motorsports sponsor

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Front Row Motorsports and Love’s Travel Stops have extended their relationship into a sixth year, the team announced Monday.

The company will sponsor the No. 34 Ford of Michael McDowell in 18 races, including the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.

It will also be on the No. 34 for both races at Texas Motor Speedway, the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway and the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

“We look forward to kicking off another great season in Daytona with Front Row Motorsports and welcoming our new driver of the No. 34 Love’s Ford, Michael McDowell,” said Dave Frankenfield, vice president of marketing for Love’s Travel Stops, in a press release. “(Team owner) Bob Jenkins and (General Manager) Jerry Freeze continue to provide great value and flexibility in our partnership while working tirelessly to put a competitive car on the track each week. They also help create a unique race-day experience that allows our customers and employees to be a part of the Love’s race team.”

The team also announced McDowell, entering his first year with FRM, will be paired with crew chief Derrick Finley. The veteran crew chief has been with the team since 2011 and worked with David Ragan last season.

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New car buoys hopes for Chevrolet to avoid ‘unacceptable’ Cup result last year

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A Chevrolet executive calls it “unacceptable” that the manufacturer did not have a car racing for the Cup championship last year at Homestead-Miami Speedway but says he expects Chevrolet to have “at least a car or two” in the title race this season with the new Camaro ZL1

Pat Suhy, Chevrolet’s NASCAR Group Manager, made the comments Sunday after a luncheon at the National Motorsports Press Association Convention.

Chevrolet had no Cup car finish higher than fifth (Chase Elliott) last year and did not score a win in the 10-race playoffs — Toyota won eight races and Ford two. Toyota won the championship with Martin Truex Jr. and Furniture Row Racing.

“If you look at the car count and just do a ratio of the car count, we were (seven) out of 16 going into the playoffs last year and to not have one make it in the final round was not good,’’ Suhy said.

“I expect us to have at least a car or two in the Final Four this year. There’s no reason we shouldn’t.’’

Suhy and others at Chevrolet are buoyed by the Camaro ZL1 and look to repeat the success Toyota had last season (16 wins in 36 races) with its updated Camry.

Suhy said a key to the Camaro ZL1 is that Chevrolet engineers found ways to move more downforce from the front to the rear of the car.

“As teams make more downforce, they tend to make more and more front downforce, they don’t gain rear downforce as much,’’ Suhy said. “With the old car, as they made more and more front downforce, it got more and more aero loose, so it got harder to keep the car from being too loose and unstable going into the turns.’’

Suhy said that while there were some Chevrolets that were strong last season — Kyle Larson won four races to lead the manufacturer — many teams had a challenge with the setup.

“I would say the loose to relative looseness of the car didn’t feel as comfortable getting into the corners,’’ Suhy said of last year’s car. “So I think a lot of it is really about driver comfort and how they feel going 210 mph down the frontstretch at Michigan and lifting and turning left and having the confidence that the car is actually going to turn left and not lose the front end. I think those are the things this car will help feel more settled, more stable and less twitchy.’’

Any new car can have its struggles. Despite its dominance last year, Toyota won only two of the first 17 races before winning 14 of the final 19.

“I think some of the things that we’ve done with our car and what we’ve done since it was approved, working together with our teams and with the teams working separately, I’d like to think that we’re not going to struggle that badly that early,’’ Suhy said. “I guess we’ll see. We’re prepared. If we do struggle, it’s not because of the fundamental design of the car, it’s really just a matter of more time development needed. We’re ready to address that if needed.’’

Chevrolet enters this new era without its NASCAR program manager. Alba Colon joined Hendrick Motorsports earlier this month to oversee the team’s competition systems group. She was among those from Chevrolet at the track most weekends who worked with the teams.

Suhy said he’s temporarily filling Colon’s job, along with his other duties, until a replacement can be found. Suhy said the team that developed the car remains and that Kevin Bayless, Chevrolet Racing NASCAR Chassis and Aerodynamics Program Manager, will play a greater role. Bayless will be at the organizational test Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Each Cup organization is allowed to have one team test. 

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