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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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NASCAR suspends Camping World Truck crew chief one race

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NASCAR has suspended Camping World Truck Series crew chief Kevin Bellicourt one Truck event and fined him $5,000 because Justin Haley‘s truck failed minimum height requirements after last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The L1 penalty also docked Haley 10 points and the team 10 owner points. He finished 17th in an encumbered finish.

NASCAR also announced Thursday that Joseph P. Light has been reinstated after successfully completing NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program. He was indefinitely suspended March 16.

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Stewart-Haas Racing, Nature’s Bakery reach tentative settlement

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Counsel for Stewart-Haas Racing reported to North Carolina Superior Court on Wednesday that it has executed settlement documents with Nature’s Bakery.

A status report was pushed back 21 days to June 23 in the event the that the parties have not filed a stipulation of dismissal by that date.

No details of the settlement documents were detailed to the court.

Stewart-Haas Racing filed a $31 million breach of contract lawsuit against Nature’s Bakery on Feb. 3. Nature’s Bakery had two years remaining on a three-year contract to sponsor Danica Patrick’s team when the company sent the team a notice of termination on Jan. 19 . Nature’s Bakery was to have paid $15,212,000 each season to sponsor the team.

Nature’s Bakery filed a counterclaim Feb. 25 stating it did not see the return it was led to believe in sponsoring Patrick’s team.

Click here to read court document

Thursday’s schedule for NASCAR Cup, Xfinity at Charlotte

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Charlotte Motor Speedway kicks off its weekend leading up to Sunday’s main event, the Coca-Cola 600, with today’s action.

The Xfinity Series will hold two practices, while the NASCAR Cup Series has one practice and qualifies in the evening.

Here is today’s schedule:

(All Times Eastern)

11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. – Cup garage open

1:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

2 p.m. – 3:25 p.m. – First Cup practice (Fox Sports 1)

4 p.m. – 4:55 p.m. – First Xfinity practice (FS1)

6 p.m. – 6:55 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (FS1)

7:15 p.m. – Cup qualifying (multi-vehicle, three rounds) (FS1, Performance Racing Network)

Long: Hall of Fame moment is special for father and son

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CHARLOTTE — Sleep has not come easy for Doug Yates in some time.

It has only gotten worse lately.

He can’t stop thinking of his father, Robert, who battles liver cancer. Robert has undergone chemotherapy, but at one point doctors said they weren’t sure what how to treat the 74-year-old former NASCAR team owner and engine builder who was selected to the 2018 Hall of Fame Class on Wednesday.

That helpless feeling of not solving a problem counters what Robert and Doug have done all their lives. If there was an issue with an engine, they worked harder and longer until they fixed the matter.

This they can’t.

While Robert Yates undergoes experimental treatments, Doug is there to help take care of his father. There are bad days, Doug says, wincing.

“What I see is a man who is broken down and built back up because he is watching his father,’’ said Whitney Yates, Doug’s wife. “Sometimes (Robert) is so sick he can’t do anything and Doug is there.’’

They are more than father and son. They share a treasured relationship not every boy and his dad experiences, their bonds woven early and strengthened with each day together.

Doug fondly recalls sleeping on a cot in a race shop when he was about 5 years old while his father worked on an engine through the night. They traveled to races together. Doug reminisces of a trip to Richmond where his father, tired from work, told his son, then 12, to take the wheel while he slept. Yet, when a deer ran across their path, it was Robert who asked his son if he saw that.

They often went to the race shop together. Although family, Robert was still the boss. He would be hard on his son at times, but Doug cherishes even those memories.

Robert was only teaching his son what it took to succeed. Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett won two Daytona 500s and Davey Allison won another for Robert Yates Racing. Jarrett won the 1999 Cup championship with the team. As an owner, Robert Yates won 57 Cup races and 48 poles.

Now, Doug is the boss. He oversees the “vision” his father had of the Roush Yates Engines shop, which powered Kurt Busch to a Daytona 500 win and Ford teams to four other victories in the season’s first 11 races.

“He wants to make (his dad) proud,’’ Whitney said of Doug. “He’s always trying so hard.

“Doug is always moving the bar. I think Robert is so proud of that.’’

While Doug does what he can for his father and the family business, he couldn’t control what happened at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The past three years Robert, Doug and the rest of the family came to the Hall of Fame to see if Robert would be selected. Five are chosen each year. Robert ranked sixth in votes received twice, just missing enshrinement.

Robert Yates reacts after he is announced to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Each time, Robert said the voting panel got it right.

“Selfishly, I didn’t think so, but he did,’’ Doug said. “That was a lesson for me. Everything happens for a reason.’’

As Wednesday approached, Doug Yates’ anxiety grew. It was worse Wednesday morning and throughout the day.

As Doug walked into Hall of Fame, ahead of his father, he conceded he was “nervous.’’

He also was prepared.

Doug stocked multiple tissues in the pockets of his slacks.

“If he didn’t make it, I was going to break down,’’ Doug said of his father making the Hall of Fame. “If he did, I was going to break down.’’

Robert also felt nervous.

“If I don’t get in,’’ Robert told himself before the announcement, “that’s the reason to work real hard to be here next year to get in.’’

The family didn’t have to wait long to celebrate.

Robert Yates, who received 94 percent of the vote, was announced first.

“Wow,’’ Doug said. “I’m glad that’s over.’’

His father, sitting a row in front of Doug, reached back. Doug leaned forward. They held hands. 

After that it was a matter of relishing what had happened as four other men — Red Byron, Ray Evernham, Ken Squier and Ron Hornady Jr. — were selected to join Robert Yates in the next Hall of Fame Class.

Doug stay composed throughout. He wiped his eyes once.

When the ceremony ended, Robert Yates reached his arm around wife Carolyn and embraced her.

“My family means so much to me because they allowed me to work night and day,’’ Robert Yates said. “Do I love engines? Yes, whether one cylinder, two cylinders, six or 12 or 24. I love engines.’’

That passion led him to this moment.

“I feel like I could take a jack,’’ said the former jackman.

“I don’t know if I’ll sleep tonight.’’

Doug Yates will.

His father will be in the Hall of Fame.

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