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Connection between Erik Jones and Chris Gabehart was years in the making

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The Erik Jones-Chris Gabehart relationship didn’t start with a January 8 press release from Joe Gibbs Racing.

Although paired together for Jones’ rookie Xfinity Series season, the two, in fact, go way back. To October 2012.

Jones was given what turned out to be the start of his big break. A mutual friend suggested to Gabehart, who was working with Kyle Busch at the time, to let Jones shake down Busch’s Late Model for the All American 400 at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee. Busch would need an extra hand since he was going to be traveling from Talladega Superspeedway.

“Of course Kyle loves racing Late Models and wants to win all the big ones, and that’s one he hadn’t won yet,” Gabehart recalled Wednesday during a teleconference ahead of the Xfinity Series championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “But we had to be in Talladega. We were knocked out of the Chase, so we needed somebody to practice the car, and we had actually went through a few different names, names I think you all would probably know, and finally got to Erik as one who could do it and be willing to do it.”

Jones was 16 years old and had driven in very few Late Model races. He had also never been to Nashville before. Combine all that with getting behind the wheel of one of Busch’s racecars and Gabehart acknowledges the pressure that was put on Jones. But Gabehart easily remembers how fast Jones was and how well he dialed the car in.

“Just handled himself great,” Gabehart said. “Truthfully, that weekend while he didn’t get to race, was really the building block for the Snowball Derby. It allowed Erik and Kyle to get to know each other.”

Said Jones: “That was a cool experience for me. I remember going down there, and they gave me per diem, and I was like, ‘Man, this is pretty cool. I feel like I’m getting paid to drive a racecar.’ So that was a pretty neat experience and definitely one that I think played into getting my opportunity over at KBM.”

That’s where the Snowball Derby, run in December, comes in. Jones, in family-owned equipment, beat Busch in the most prestigious Late Model race in the country. Between that and the Nashville test, it appeared to be the tipping point for Busch in giving Jones a shot in NASCAR equipment.

“Erik did such a good job for us (in Nashville) that when we got to the Snowball Derby and Erik put up such a battle, David kind of beating Goliath there with 20 to go in a shootout, the foundation was already laid, and at that point Kyle was like, wow, this kid has got something,” Gabehart said.

Jones quickly rose through the Camping World Truck Series, winning four times in the 17 races he ran between 2013-14. In 2015, running full-time, Jones won three more times and took home the championship.

His move into the Xfinity Series resulted in a reunion with Gabehart, who was moved from a race engineer role in the Sprint Cup Series, to overseeing the No. 20 team. Jones and Gabehart have earned eight poles, led 624 laps, and won four races.

Saturday, they will be one of four teams competing for the championship at Homestead. Something that seems amazing to Gabehart when looking at how the two first met and how far Jones has come.

“It was really neat to be a part of all of that,” Gabehart said of 2012. “I think without any one of those little things going the way they did, there’s a good chance Erik Jones wouldn’t be where he is today, and that’s pretty special to be a part of.”

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Martinsville Truck race postponed to Sunday after Cup race

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The Alpha Energy Solutions 250 Truck race at Martinsville has been postponed until Sunday afternoon, following the Cup race.

Ben Rhodes led the field to green 2:05 p.m. and held the lead until Mike Senica stalled on the track. Rhodes led the first 23 laps until precipitation red flagged the event at 2:17.

The Truck race will be televised on FS1.

Martin Truex Jr. sweeps Martinsville Cup practice

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After posting the fastest single lap and quickest 10-lap average in the first practice, Martin Truex. Jr. also topped the fastest lap chart in final practice for the STP 500 with a speed of 95.415 mph.

Also repeating his performance from the first practice, Brad Keselowski was second on the leaderboard. Keselowski was fast on long runs with the quickest 10-lap average of 94.579 mph.

Sophomore Daniel Suarez was notably fast. His lap of 95.588 mph was third on the chart.

Kyle Busch (95.122) and Ryan Newman (94.756) rounded out the top five.

Jimmie Johnson (93.831) was hoping to carry over momentum from last week’s top 1o at Auto Club, but struggled to find single lap speed. He landed 28th on the speed chart.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wheel hopped entering turn three with 33 minutes remaining. He rolled out a backup car and will start at the back regardless of where he qualifies.

Click here for the full final practice times.

History looms for the Wood Brothers

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Glen Wood first came to Martinsville, Virgina in November 1953, making the short 30-minute drive from Stuart for his NASCAR debut in a family owned car. Nearly 65 years later, the famed Woods Brothers are still racing the iconic No. 21 on the half-mile bullring.

The torch has since been passed to Glen’s sons, but the history remains.

“Our dad came here and raced,” Eddie Wood said in a press release before the STP 500. “He raced here in the fifties and it’s just a special, special place and knowing that the Ford Fusions ran really well last year here that gives you a lot of confidence. I’m sure it gives Paul (Menard) a lot of confidence, but it’s just a special, special place.”

Last fall, Ryan Blaney returned the 21 to the top 10 on the team’s home track for the first time in 12 years. He finished eighth in the First Data 400. This year, Blaney turned the car over to Menard and as the series comes to Martinsville for the first of two races this year, the legacy continues.

“The pressure is all what you make of it,” Menard said. “I know a couple things – I’ve got a great team behind me. We’re gonna have a fast Ford and we’re gonna have a lot of fans cheering on the 21 car, so you can think about that every waking second you’re up here, or you can go to work and do your business. It’s obviously an honor to drive this car and to be a part of the Wood family driving the 21 at Martinsville, and I’m really gonna think about that when I put my firesuit on, but once you get the helmet on it’s all business.”

The gravity of protecting the Wood Brothers’ legend at Martinsville is increased by the fact that this week marks NASCAR’s first short track race of the season and a return to its grassroots. It is easy to feel the history of racing on this little track nestled in rural Virginia—not only for the iconic team, but the entire field.

“It’s getting back to grassroots,” Menard said. “Over half the guys, probably more than that, started racing at short tracks with late models somewhere. We were running 25 laps back then versus 500 now, but the stage racing is kind of like a couple of heat races before the A Main, so you try to get your points when you can and be smart about things when you can and let it rip when you can.”

“You can race here year after year, race after race and there’s no way anybody can mess this race up,” Eddie Wood said. “This is just always a great race because it’s tight and it’s grassroots, it’s NASCAR roots.”

The STP 500 is not just another race for the Wood Brothers. On a track that puts a premium on mechanical grip and driver ability, as opposed to flat out horsepower, Menard has greater control over his fate. That is both good and bad news, because a milestone has been within reach for the past 27 races –  the team’s 100th win.

“It would be huge,” Menard said of the 100th win. “I’ll take it anywhere. We started at Daytona and didn’t get it there, and we’ll keep working until we get it. Martinsville would be a huge one for us, obviously, and if we do that, we’ll have another one for the museum down the road.”

Ben Rhodes grabs Martinsville Truck pole

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Ben Rhodes laid down a lap of 95.942 mph in the final round of qualification for the Alpha Energy Solutions 250 Truck series at Martinsville to win his third career pole.

Teammate Matt Crafton will line up beside him on the outside of the front row with a lap of 95.704 mph.

Grant Enfinger qualified third to give ThorSports a clean sweep of the top spots.

Round two: Kyle Benjamin was fastest 95.830 mph. With time running off the clock, Myatt Snider (94.984) bumped Harrison Burton (94.770) out of the top 12.

Round one: Todd Gilliland topped the chart with a speed of 95.213 mph. He will have to drop to the back to start the race because of an engine change, so he did not attempt to post a time in the second round.

Click here for the race lineup.

Weather permitting, the green flag will wave over the field at 2 p.m.