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Month before first full Cup season, Michael McDowell giving away only NASCAR trophy

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It took 10 years for Michael McDowell to earn his first NASCAR trophy, but it doesn’t reside in a place of endearment.

“It’s on the floor in my guest room because my wife made me take it down to put up Christmas decorations,” McDowell said this week during the NASCAR Media Tour. “She was tired of it being in the main walkway.”

Last July, McDowell won his first NASCAR race in his 92nd Xfinity Series start, claiming the victory at Road America in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 Chevrolet. He led 24 of the race’s 48 laps and outran teammate Brendan Gaughan.

It remains McDowell’s only win in 309 starts over all three of NASCAR’s national series. But McDowell, who returns to the No. 95 owned by Leavine Family Racing, has no plans to keep the only trophy he’s earned since his first start in an Oct. 20, 2007 Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway.

When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series treks to Phoenix International Raceway next week for a test, McDowell will use the opportunity to hand the trophy over his father to “store for a little while.”

“Trophies, to me, have never been significant,” McDowell said. “I’d rather have just the memory of being in Victory Lane and the pictures of the people you’re in Victory Lane with. The only trophy I have is that Road America trophy from my career. I’ve pretty much given away all of them, and I’m planning on giving away that one as well.”

Next month, five months after the biggest accomplishment of his NASCAR career, McDowell will begin his most significant season to date. With Leavine Family Racing in possession of a charter, McDowell is guaranteed to start every Cup Series race for the first time.

Before this year, the most he had started was 33 races in 2013. Last season, he started 31 while splitting races with Ty Dillon.

“It’s kind of a unique feeling,” said McDowell, whose first Cup start was in March 2008 at Martinsville for Michael Waltrip Racing. “I’ve run a lot of races, but not at a high level. Not at the level that I wanted to be at. So this is the first year where I feel like I’m in competitive equipment with the right people, the right parts, the right partners, to go out there and really show what we can do and do it full-time.

“Last year … It was pretty close to full-time, so it wasn’t a huge jump. But, to know that now you have a shot if you do win a race, to be in the (playoffs) and to do all those things that small teams strive to do, is definitely a challenge we look forward to.”

McDowell and his team have “high hopes” this season, especially after he earned two tops 10s last season. That included his first top 10 in a non-restrictor plate race when he placed 10th in the finale in Miami.

“We’ve done a really great job in the off-season, infrastructure-wise, and just really getting prepared for this year,” McDowell said. “We hope to pick up right where we left off, and to do that consistently now that we’re running full-time. To run in those low 20s and be in the ‘teens gives you an opportunity to steal a good result, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that every weekend.”

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Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson are members of each other’s fan club

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Following Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Bristol Night Race, Kyle Busch stopped by the NASCAR on NBCSN victory lane stage to give an expanded explanation of how he wound up not only winning the race, but also sweeping all three races of the weekend.

During the interview, Busch discussed numerous things about the race, but one part stood out: his complimentary explanation of racing with his namesake, Kyle Larson.

“I tell you what, I like Larson a lot, but he is an animal,” Busch said with a smile. “He just drives the heck out of a race car.

“He don’t care if you’re there. He’ll pull down in front of you and take that chance that you’ll cut him a break. And sometimes you can’t, sometimes you don’t, and I think that’s just sprint car mentality.

“Like when you’re going down a straightaway side-by-side with a guy in a sprint car and you just turn it off to the bottom and try to pull a slide job on another guy, you just don’t care. He better check up, or you’re both going to be up on your wing, you know what I mean?”

While Krista Voda, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett spoke to Busch, Larson put out a post-race tweet explaining his awe and appreciation of Busch and his talents.

Busch responded in kind.

“I appreciate that,” Busch said. “A lot of people would say those exact same words about Kyle Larson himself. And I do as well. I’ve raced against him in Trucks and Xfinity and watched him work his way up through the ranks. It’s fun to race guys like that.”

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No race today, but you can still check out Episode 2 of “The Pits”

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Don’t miss Episode 2 of “The Pits” and be on the lookout for the next episodes only on NBCSports.com/The-Pits.

Episode 2, sponsored by Sonic and brought to you by NBC Sports, features the pit crew and what comical adventures they get into after stepping off pit road.

Check out the video above.

 

 

Matt Kenseth had motivation chasing Erik Jones: ‘That’s my replacement, and I better run him down’

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – There were two delicious subplots crystallizing with 100 laps to go Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, but Matt Kenseth was focused on only one.

Yes, a win by Furniture Row Racing rookie Erik Jones would have locked up another playoff berth and tightened the screws on winless drivers on the points bubble such as Kenseth

But as he chased after Jones, who will take over Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing next season, the championship wasn’t on his mind.

“I didn’t really think about that,” Kenseth said after finishing fourth, adding with a laugh. “I was really more thinking about, ‘That’s my replacement, and I better run him down and pass him to show him I can still do it better than he can.’ I had those thoughts. But I wasn’t thinking anything about the playoffs, I was thinking about trying to win the race.

“It’s human nature. Whoever you’re catching for the lead, you’re always thinking something about them, right? Where you can sniff the victory, your mindset changes a little bit. It’s not just another car, it’s the leader, so you think things like that every once in a while. My brain’s a scary place.”

The motivational tactics didn’t quite work as Kenseth came up short. But so did Jones, who led a race-high 260 of 500 laps but was runner-up to Kyle Busch (who swept the week of NASCAR races at the 0.533-mile oval for the second time in his career).

Afterward, Jones and Kenseth (who doesn’t have a confirmed ride for 2018) sat side by side in the media center for a postrace interview session that could have been awkward but was surprisingly jovial.

Asked how he was able to use the bumper of his No. 77 Toyota respectfully in traffic, Jones received a playful nudge and whisper from a smiling Kenseth.

“I was asking Erik how you run into somebody respectfully,” he joked.

“I didn’t mean to hit Matt,” Jones replied.

“Did you hit me?”

“Just barely.”

“Didn’t remember,” Kenseth said with his typically Cheshire cat grin. “Shouldn’t have brought it up.  Now I’m mad. You guys laugh, wait till we leave here. Takes my ride and runs into me!”

After the laughter subsided, Jones said the subplots weren’t on his mind, either, as he fended off Kenseth.

“When you’re out there, it’s just another car to pass,” Jones said. “At least I’d assume that’s how most people look at it. That’s how I look at it.

“Yeah, sure you get to some guy, you’re like, ‘That guy wrecked me last week,’ something like that.  For the most part, as long as you don’t have a grudge with the guy, it’s just another competitor.”

Said Kenseth: “Honestly I would have liked to see Erik get the win. It would have been fine with me. I wasn’t really thinking about the playoffs. It would just have been another one of our cars with a win, put another JGR Furniture Row Toyota in the playoff grid.”

With two races remaining in the regular season, Kenseth’s chances still seem decent without a victory. Along with Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray, Kenseth is among the three winless drivers who have a provisional playoff berth.

The trio is well ahead of the cutoff (Clint Bowyer is 58 points behind McMurray, who is three behind Kenseth and 11 behind Elliott), so provided there isn’t another first-time winner, it would take a collapse for them to be eliminated.

After what Kenseth called “the best day we’ve ever had” by the No. 20 pit crew, there is playoff optimism despite a winless streak that is at 13 months. Saturday marked his fourth top five in six races.

“I feel good about the next 12 (races),” Kenseth said. “When we’re at our best, we can run good at all those places.”

Erik Jones fails to live up to Bristol intro song, but earns best finish of Cup career

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Erik Jones made a pivotal mistake leading up to Saturday night’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

He was one of six who forgot to choose their intro song prior to the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race.

“I don’t even know who picked my song,” Jones said.

The Furniture Row Racing driver can thank someone named “DJ Du” for stepping up.

As a result, Jones was “a little surprised” when he appeared at the top of a ramp in Turn 3 to be introduced as the pole-sitter for the night’s race. The sounds of DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” echoed throughout “Thunder Valley.”

“DJ Du” turned out not to be a prophet. But Jones did everything he could during the ensuing 500 laps to back up the song selection.

Making his 27th Cup start and his second at the .533-mile track, Jones led a career-high 260 laps. He matched wits with Kyle Busch, now a six-time Bristol winner, and Matt Kenseth, a four-time Bristol winner and the driver he’ll succeed in the No. 20.

The battle resulted in Jones finishing second, the best result of his Cup career.

Jones led nine times, swapping the lead with Busch, his former Camping World Truck Series owner, 10 times – three times in the last 139 laps.

Despite the lack of his first Cup trophy, Jones is confident it was the most fun he’s had to date in the Cup Series.

Though he’s only 21, the race reminded him of his good ol’ days driving modifieds.

“It takes you back to, you know, late model racing really more than anything,” Jones said. “You’re just on the gas. You’re not saving tires. You’re just hammer down and getting everything you can, which is a lot of fun. It’s hard on you as a driver, it wears you out, but you definitely have a lot of fun.”

Bristol, a track he’s won at twice in the Xfinity Series, reminds him of Winchester Speedway in Indiana, a .5-mile oval where he’s won three Winchester 400.

And he almost won like at Winchester.

Even Busch, who won all three Bristol races this week, thought it was Jones’ race to lose before he took the lead for good with 56 laps to go.

“He’s a phenomenal talent and a great race car driver,” said Busch, who first discovered Jones when he finished third to Jones in the 2012 Snowball Derby. “We knew that a long time ago. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing I found him or a bad thing I found him because one of these days I’m going to lose to him and I’m not going to be thrilled, but I’m still going to congratulate him.

“I thought today was actually going to be that day.”

Jones, who first experienced Cup action in 2015 when he relieved Denny Hamlin mid-race at Bristol, said leading a race for so long is a “burden,” especially for someone still figuring out how things work in the Cup Series.

“You’re letting all those guys be behind you get better and better and improve on their cars to gain up on you,” Jones said. “It’s hard to get your car better when you’re out front. You don’t really know what you need.”

If there was a burden, Jones said there was no pressure to win, even with a potential playoff spot waiting for him if he did visit victory lane.

With two races left in the regular season, he is 16th in the points standings but outside the 16-driver playoff grid.

“This was our best shot to win,” Jones said. “I was just actually really calm this week. I really had a sense we were going to run really well. … I feel really confident every time I come to Bristol. And, you know, kind of felt like we were going to be running up front, but just didn’t have enough.”

Saturday’s 500 laps left Jones the “most wore out” he’s been this season following a race, but he knows they’ll be instrumental when he finally gets to celebrate as Busch did Saturday night.

Said Jones: “You got to lose one to win one, right?”

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