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Will Martinsville mark the last time in NASCAR for Jeff Gordon? ‘Never say never’

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Autographing a bank of bulbs that soon will illuminate the oldest track in NASCAR’s premier series made Jeff Gordon chuckle Friday.

“I might have to come back for lights at Martinsville,” he said with a sly smile.

The four-time series champion already has returned more times than he or anyone else would have believed after his ‘retirement” last season.

Summoned to duty behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet while Dale Earnhardt Jr. recovers from the effects of a concussion, Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway will mark the last of eight starts this year for Gordon as an interim driver.

But will his 805th Sprint Cup start also be the last of his career?

“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Gordon, who qualified 10th Friday. “I can promise you I had no intentions of this happening, but here I am.

“Never say never is all I know what to say. I really don’t think that I will be getting back in the Cup car again, but go ask (team owner) Rick Hendrick. That really has more to do with him than anything else. I hope in the future that the drivers don’t have a situation like what we had with Junior where they need somebody to fill in for them. This little bit of experience has been kind of good for me, good for the organization and we have had a little bit of fun with it as well. If I had to do it, then certainly I would, but I don’t anticipate it.”

Before retiring, Gordon had targeted Martinsville, where he has a series-best nine wins, as a potentially optimum place for a one-off return. But he was slightly wary after scoring his most recent win here last Nov. 1 (which qualified him for the championship round in his 23rd and final season).

“I love this track,” the 45-year-old said. “Obviously, I have amazing memories from this race last year. I guess there was a part of me that wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back and take away from that, but at the same time I’ve always said if there is one track that I feel like I could get back in the car and feel comfortable and competitive it’s this track. For that I’m happy that I’m here.”

He made his 2016 return to the cockpit of a Hendrick Motorsports car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he scored the first of a record five wins in the 1994 inaugural race.

“Of course there wasn’t much hesitation from me when that occurred because I love Indianapolis, and the track has been amazing,” he said. “I didn’t hesitate one bit, but it was a tall challenge when I got there. It was really tough. Things didn’t go as well as any of us had hoped.”

Gordon said the 2,071 laps he has raced this season have been worth it, though, helping improve Hendrick’s Chevys while also improving his knowledge as a Fox Sports analyst.

“I was kind of happy to do more, sad about the situation, but if they needed me I wanted to do a little bit more to get more comfortable with the team and the cars,” he said. “I wanted to drive the cars with less downforce this year and see what it was like. Does me a lot of good when I get back in the Fox booth to kind of connect those dots and was a great experience. Each time I’ve been in the car, I feel like I’ve gotten better and better at giving the feedback that they need.”

Martin Truex Jr. wins at Kansas; Kenseth, Larson, McMurray, Stenhouse Jr. eliminated

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Given he already was locked into the upcoming Round of 8 in the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Martin Truex Jr. had nothing to lose in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 — so he went out and won his third race of the playoffs and seventh race of the season.

Truex led 89 laps to capture the win at Kansas Speedway, his second win there this season and an uncanny sixth win on a 1.5-mile track this season. His seventh win was on the road course at Watkins Glen.

Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, who was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, finished second, followed by Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin.

Sunday’s race was a cut-off race for the Round of 12. The four drivers that were eliminated from advancing to the Round 8 semifinal round were Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Larson.

Those advancing to the Round of 8 are Truex, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch.

STAGE WINNERS: Kyle Busch won Stage 1, Denny Hamlin won Stage 2.

Among incidents in the scheduled 167 laps of the final stage:

* Jimmie Johnson spun coming out of Turn 4 on Lap 187. He tore up a good chunk of the frontstretch grass but did not hit any other cars. He brought his car to pit road to fix some damage to the hood, strapped on four new tires and fuel and returned to the track. Shortly after the restart on Lap 192, Johnson spun again, clipping the Turn 3 wall and flatspotted all four of his tires.

* A big wreck on the restart on Lap 197 involved a number of cars, including playoff contenders Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray. The incident brought out a red flag race stoppage. The wreck occurred when Erik Jones got loose, turned right and head-on into the wall, and collected a number of other drivers including Daniel Suarez, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Danica Patrick, Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer.

* Kenseth suffered a huge penalty on the ensuing pit stop. Because he had seven crew men over the wall, violating the damaged vehicle policy, NASCAR ruled Kenseth was out of the race. As a result, he will not advance to the Round of 8 and has been eliminated from the playoffs in his final season with Joe Gibbs Racing.

* As for McMurray, his car could not be repaired and his championship hopes are done. “We just unfortunately had two bad races in a row and couldn’t do nothing about it,” McMurray told NBCSN. “You race all day to the end and we didn’t make it today.”

We’ll have more information, including full results and updated standings, shortly. Please check back soon.

Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray eliminated from race after massive Lap 198 crash

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Matt Kenseth and fellow playoff driver Jamie McMurray were involved in a 10-car crash on Lap 198 of the elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

The crash began when Erik Jones got loose, spun and began collecting cars.

The crash caused a red flag.

Kenseth was ruled out of the race after too many crew members went over the wall to repair his No. 20 Toyota. That effectively eliminates the Joe Gibbs Racing driver from contending for the championship. McMurray is also eliminated from contention.

“I don’t know what any of the rules are,” Kenseth told NBCSN. “It seems like we’ve got a lot of stuff that kind of gets changed so often I honestly can’t keep up with it. My head kind of spins, from putting lug nuts on out of pit boxes to one too many guys over the wall, you’re not allowed to race anymore. I just don’t get it to be honest with you. I really don’t have a lot good to say right now. I’m more than disappointed.”

The crash involved Jones, Kenseth, McMurray, Daniel Suarez, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola, Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne.

Kenseth’s crew chief, Jason Ratcliffe, blamed the mistake on miscommunication and simply not counting the number of crew members who were over the wall.

“We missed a head count there. It’s a shame that that’s a rule that takes competitors out of an opportunity for the championship,” Ratcliffe said. “Somebody just missed the call there or I didn’t communicate properly. Typically it boils down to communication and I think that’s what happened there.”

Said McMurray: “I was really looking forward to just getting to the end of the race. Like I said earlier, we just needed the pit stops to go our way or the strategy to get shook up, and it was kind of happening right there. You just hope that you’re going to be on the right end of the strategy. And then if the race would have gone long, we had one of the best cars on the long runs. But, you just don’t know. You race all day to the end, and we just didn’t make it today.”

Jimmie Johnson spins twice early in final stage of Kansas elimination race

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In danger of not advancing to the third round of the playoffs, Jimmie Johnson spun on the front stretch on Lap 189 of the elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

The No. 48 slid down the track and into the infield grass, which had been drenched in rain overnight.

“I got loose,” Johnson told his team over the radio.

After undergoing repairs on pit road, Johnson returned to the track. But his misfortune continued on the ensuing restart when he again spun, this time in Turn 3 while running in the high lane.

Johnson pitted again and returned to the track before a large, multi-car wreck unfolded on the restart, which Johnson was able to avoid.

Johnson entered the race in the last transfer spot, seven points above ninth.

Denny Hamlin stays out on old tires in one-lap shootout, captures Stage 2 at Kansas

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In a one-lap shootout to wrap up Stage 2, Denny Hamlin on old tires held off the rest of the field to win the middle stage of Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kentucky Speedway.

Kevin Harvick (on new tires) was second, followed by Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch (also on new tires).

The younger Busch brother has dominated the race thus far, winning Stage 1, leading 57 laps in Stage 2 and a total of 94 laps of the first 180 laps in the scheduled 267-lap event.

Hamlin and Keselowski were both penalized for speeding on pit road after the stage ended.

Among incidents during Stage 2:

* Martin Truex Jr. came off Turn 4 and made an abrupt entry onto pit road on Lap 92 after complaining of a vibration in his Toyota, potentially from a loose wheel. Truex took four tires and fuel and returned to the track.

* Denny Hamlin misunderstood a command from crew chief Mike Wheeler on pit road during his stop on Lap 128. After the jack dropped, Hamlin hesitated because he thought he heard Wheeler say “hold up” on the team radio. Wheeler actually said “Hard out.” The miscue cost Hamlin a couple of seconds and returned to the track in 17th position.

* Brett Moffitt hit the outside wall for the second time in the race on Lap 156, bringing out the caution in the waning moments of Stage 2 to set up the one-lap shootout. He also hit the wall on Lap 46 in Stage 1.