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Blaney, Wood Brothers head to Martinsville for homecoming, hope to leave with win

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It’ll be a big homecoming this weekend at Martinsville Speedway for Wood Brothers Racing.

The Wood Brothers began their legendary NASCAR racing career in Stuart, Virginia, about 30 miles from the Speedway.

Driver Ryan Blaney grew up in High Point, North Carolina, which is about 45 miles from Martinsville. And crew chief Jeremy Bullins grew up in Walnut Cove, N.C., about 40 miles from Martinsville.

That’s why Blaney, Bullins and the Wood Brothers are primed for what they hope will be a strong showing for the No. 21 Ford team in Sunday’s STP 500.

“This is kind of a home track for me,” Blaney said of the .528-mile paperclip-shaped oval. “I have a lot of friends and family that come back and watch this race.

“I’ve been coming here ever since I can remember. This is probably the race I came to most as a kid just because it was so close to our house where I grew up and my dad was racing, so I do consider it a home race as well just because I grew up down the road, so that’s pretty neat.”

Since it was formed in the early 1950s, Wood Brothers Racing has competed in 111 Cup races at Martinsville, earning two wins, 28 top-fives and 42 top-10s.

Not coincidentally, Martinsville Speedway will celebrate its 70th anniversary this weekend, having opened in 1947 and has been the oldest operating track in NASCAR.

And the Wood Brothers have been there for virtually every race since, either racing on-track or watching as spectators.

Glen and I were standing on the backstretch over here at the very first race ever run here 70 years ago, so I think it would be really cool for us — 70 years later — for us to be sitting right here Sunday evening after the race and put that Ford Fusion and Motorcraft Ford in front,” team co-owner Leonard Wood said.

That’s why this weekend has such great significance and importance to the No. 21 team. Blaney sits seventh in the Cup point standings, will make his 60th career start in NASCAR’s premier series and would love to earn his first career Cup win at a track that means so much both to him and the Wood Brothers.

“It would be really big,” Blaney said. “Historically, this hasn’t been my best race track, but it means a lot. For the Wood Brothers, it’s a home race for them and it’s my crew chief’s favorite race track, so that’s given a lot of extra incentive.

“I thought we’ve gotten a lot better here over the last couple of years. I know what we need and we’ll try to run up further toward the front, so it’s just all about putting 500 laps together, saving the car and just trying to stay out of trouble the whole race. It would mean a lot (to win), for sure, and it would be a really good feeling to try to make that happen.”

Blaney has two career Cup starts at Martinsville. Both came last season and both ended in 19th place finishes.

Meanwhile, the Wood Brothers – Eddie and Leonard – would love to earn their first win at Martinsville since NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson visited victory lane there 44 years ago in spring 1973.

“It’s a big race for us,” Eddie Wood said. “We live 25 miles from here. We’ve known Clay Campbell’s (Martinsville president) family all my life.

“We used to hang out with his grandfather (track founder H. Clay Earles). He was always out promoting the race and he would come to our shop in Stuart and we’d have lunch and play cards and do all kinds of things. It’s just great to be racing back here.

“Probably the most special thing for us is to be back racing here. This is home. It’s a hard race to do well in. Like Ryan said, you have to put together 500 laps and stay out of all the calamity that happens and not try to create any of your own, so I’m looking forward to it.

“Like he said, our crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, loves this place and so do we. Ryan’s got two races under his belt, plus Truck races, so I think he’s underestimating his track time here. I think he’ll be just fine.”

The 23-year-old Blaney has matured and improved as a driver since making his first Cup start in 2014. He’d love to add a win at Martinsville to his best Cup finish to date: runner-up in this year’s Daytona 500.

But to do that, Blaney knows he’ll have to maintain his composure at a place where it’s very difficult when you constantly bang fenders with nearly 40 other drivers for 500 laps.

“That’s one of the biggest things you fight here is staying calm and patient,” Blaney said. “All drivers at some point in the race will get frustrated and whether they act upon it or not is up to them.

“We try to stay as emotionless as possible. I think that’s the best thing to do and try and keep a cool head. Granted, that really hasn’t been the case before. I haven’t really gotten emotional here before. It takes you a while to calm back down, but you can never really calm back down when you get like that, hot in the head.”

As Eddie Wood says, what better way to come to Martinsville for a homecoming, and to leave with a victory celebration.

“It’s been a great experience coming over here, close to home and we always want to win here more than anywhere because it was your hometown,” Wood said. “We’re looking forward to coming over here and watching Ryan win this next race. I just think 70 years later would be a really good time to win.”

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Saturday’s NASCAR Cup, Xfinity schedule at Richmond

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Today is the midpoint of the racing weekend at Richmond International Raceway.

The NASCAR Cup Series will have two practice sessions, while the NASCAR Xfinity Series will have qualifying and then race in the Toyota Care 250.

Here’s how today’s schedule shapes up (all times are Eastern):

6:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

7:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Cup garage open

9 – 9:55 a.m. – Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

10:05 a.m. – Xfinity qualifying; three rounds/multi-car (FS1)

11:15 a.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

11:30 a.m. – 12:20 p.m. – Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

12:30 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

1 p.m. – Toyota Care 250; 250 laps/187.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Starting grid for Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond

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The Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway will begin Sunday with Matt Kenseth and Ryan Blaney on the front row.

They will lead a 38-car field to green in the ninth race of the Cup season.

Filling out the top five is Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

Click here for the full starting grid.

Denny Hamlin: Joe Gibbs Racing’s rebound won’t happen ‘overnight’ or ‘in a month’

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With NASCAR visiting a track where Joe Gibbs Racing has won the last three races, one of its drivers admits the issues that have plagued the team so far in 2017 won’t be remedied quickly.

“I think we are slowly getting better, we’re gaining more knowledge trying to figure out what it is that we need to work on,” Denny Hamlin said Friday at Richmond International Raceway. “It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen this week, it won’t happen in a month. Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better.”

Entering the Toyota Owners 400, Joe Gibbs Racing has yet to win race through eight events. All four of its drivers sit outside the top 10 in points. Hamlin was the last active JGR driver to win, winning last years’ regular season finale at Richmond.

The 2016 Daytona 500 winner is 15th in the standings and has yet to finish in the top five. By this point in each of the last two seasons, Hamlin had three top fives and one win.

“It’s always taken me a long time to get over winter break,” Hamlin said. “For whatever reason, it’s taking 10 races or whatever into the season to kind of hit my stride. I’m not really sure what it is. I try just as hard at the beginning as I do at the end. It just seems like that break in the offseason, it takes myself a little while to get over that hump, get in the flow of things. I’m not really sure.”

JGR is still learning about its new 2018 Camry bodies, which Toyota introduced this year. Furniture Row Racing, which is in a technical alliance with JGR, has one win with Martin Truex Jr. (Las Vegas), who is also third in points. Erik Jones is 13th in the standings with just one top 10.

Truex and Jones claimed the top spots in Friday’s only Cup practice session.

“We all get the same information,” Truex said Friday. “I guess at the end of the day it’s how you use it, how you put it to use. I think our team, (crew chief) Cole (Pearn), (engineer) Jazzy (Jeff Curtis), (competition director) Pete (Rondeau), our guys in general are just – right now we’re just clicking. We have a lot of confidence. Things are going well.”

Through eight races, there have been six different winners. NASCAR America analyst Steve Letarte has called this Sunday’s race “pivotal” for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I think our competition also did a phenomenal job over the off‑season of getting better,” Hamlin said. “They just showed up this year with just more raw speed than what they had at the end of last year. It’s the same drivers, same crew chiefs, but their cars are faster. That makes their job a whole lot easier. But these are the trying times, you could say, that defines your character. It makes you work hard. We were on top for probably a year and a half, every week having four out of five of the fastest cars each week. Sometimes we won, sometimes we didn’t. But we’re going to get better. We’re not on top right now, so we’ve got to work extra hard to get there.”

One piece of the JGR puzzle who has had to work harder is Daniel Suarez.

The defending Xfinity Series champion enters the ninth race of his rookie season 22nd in points. The biggest road block for him has been working with two crew chiefs. His initial partner, Dave Rogers, took an indefinite leave of absence following the West Coast Swing. Since then, the No. 19 team has been led by Scott Graves, who was Suarez’ crew chief last year during his title campaign.

“It’s been a lot going on for sure,” Suarez said Friday. “I felt like we were going in a good direction maybe a month and a half ago and then we had some changes that were out of our hands and I feel like we had to start again on these processes in the Cup car. Scott, he’s a very smart crew chief, he knows a lot and he has won two championships in a row in the Xfinity Series, but in the Cup car it’s different and he knows that and I’m learning that. I believe now we are learning together instead of I’m just learning myself.”

All of these comments were made Friday morning and afternoon. In the evening, Matt Kenseth did his part to turn things around for JGR by winning the pole for Sunday’s race.

It’s the first pole for JGR since the Kenseth claimed it last fall at Kansas Speedway.

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Matt Kenseth wins first pole of year for Toyota Owners 400

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For one afternoon at least, Matt Kenseth changed the conversation about Joe Gibbs Racing’s early season problems by winning the pole for the Toyota Owners 400.

Kenseth won his first pole of 2017 with a speed of 121.076 mph around Richmond International Raceway. It’s also the first pole for Toyota this season.

It’s Kenseth’s 19th Cup pole and his second at the .75-mile track (spring 2013). Kenseth’s previous best start this season was fourth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“Those guys did really a job adjusting between rounds,” Kenseth told Fox Sports 1. “We had enough speed in out Circle K Camry that we only had to do one lap in each of the first two rounds to get into the third round. … This year has not been a good year for us, obviously so far. … We haven’t been getting any stage points, we’re buried in the points back there. We finally got a decent finish last week (at Bristol).

“Hopefully this week we can start up front, stay up front and collect some stage points.”

Kenseth will try to extend JGR’s win streak at Richmond to four races.

Ryan Blaney qualified second with a speed of 120.854 mph.

“The last lap of the last section we moved up (the track),” Blaney told FS1. “I wish I had done it both laps of the last session. so I knew how hard to go. I was in there little bit shallow the second lap and I knew I regretted it right away … I guess a bunch other cars did that and they picked up. I don’t know where (Kenseth) ran. It was a solid effort.”

It will be Blaney’s third start from second this season, which is a fact that annoys the sophomore driver in the No. 21 Ford.

“I really want to race the Clash at Daytona, that’s like my biggest thing right now,” Blaney said. “It’s upsetting me that we can’t get a pole.”

Filling out the top five for Sunday’s race is Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

In his first race since announce his retirement following this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 12th.

Other notable starting spots: Chase Elliott (14th) Brad Keselowski (15th), Denny Hamlin (16th) Jimmie Johnson (17th) and Kyle Larson (18th).

Austin Dillon will start last as a penalty for failing pre-race laser inspection five times last week at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Click here for full qualifying results.