Brad Keselowski emerges on top after classic duel with Kyle Busch in STP 500

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Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch put on arguably the best battle of the NASCAR Cup season thus far Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.

After dueling throughout the final 160 laps, Keselowski pulled away for his second win of the season to capture the STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

It was Keselowski’s first career NASCAR Cup win at Martinsville and his fifth straight top-five finish in 2017. It was also Team Penske’s first win at the 0.526-mile paper clip-shaped track since 2004.

“This is awesome,” Keselowski told FS1. “Martinsville is just one of those champion’s tracks, where guys that run well everywhere, run good here. It’s really an honor to win here and to get to compete here, the history of this track, 70 years old and a lot of legends have won here. Man, it feels great to join them.”

Keselowski becomes the first multirace winner of 2017, having won at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the season’s second race. He led 116 laps, leading the final 43 after grabbing the lead for good on Lap 458. Busch led a race-high 274 laps.

Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott were the respective winners of Stage 1 and Stage 2, but it was all Keselowski vs. Busch in the final segment of the 500-lap event.

“It’s just a frustrating season so far,” Busch told FS1. “We gave it everything we got. We do all we can with what we’re given, and we try to execute.”

MORE: Results, stats for STP 500 at Martinsville

MORE: Kyle Larson retains Cup points lead after STP 500 at Martinsville

Elliott finished third, followed by Joey Logano, Austin Dillon, A.J. Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

There was a big crash on Lap 288 that involved several cars. Austin Dillon and Erik Jones got together, collecting Daniel Suarez, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, A.J. Allmendinger, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin.

Kurt Busch was able to get going after that incident on the restart but wrecked again shortly thereafter heading into Turn 3 on Lap 296 and saw his day come to an end, as well.

MORE: Martin Truex Jr. wins Stage 1 of STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway

MORE: Stenhouse punts Busch, Elliott slides by to win Stage 2 of STP 500

On Lap 418, several cars wrecked, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick, Denny Hamlin, A.J. Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne and Aric Almirola.

It appeared Hamlin started the crash but getting loose and drifting into Patrick’s car. Earnhardt suffered damage to his radiator that ultimately ended his day early, too.

On Lap 433, Martin Truex Jr., who won Stage 1, spun in Turn 3 while running seventh. He suffered minor damage and ultimately finished 16th.

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD DAY: Chase Elliott almost doubled up. He won Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race and finished third in Sunday’s Cup race. … Austin Dillon finished a season-best fifth. … Clint Bowyer had his second consecutive top-10 finish. … Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was involved in several fender-banging incidents with fellow drivers but managed to bounce back to finish 10th.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: Jamie McMurray (38th) and Kurt Busch (37th) both suffered tire issues that led to race-ending wrecks. Busch’s bad luck continues: He’s finished 24th or worse in the last four races, including Sunday, marking his first DNF of the season. … Also having a bad showing was Dale Earnhardt Jr. (finished 34th), who suffered radiator damage that ended his day on Lap 418.

NOTABLE: Howard Miller Co., which makes the grandfather clocks that are awarded to the winners at Martinsville, are built in Keselowski’s home state of Michigan. … Keselowski’s finishes in his last five races: 1st (Atlanta), 5th (Las Vegas, Phoenix), 2nd (Fontana) and 1st (Martinsville).

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “We’re not just not quite getting the finishes we need. We just need to figure out how to finish what we are or where we’re running. So far, we’ve been finishing worse.” – Kyle Busch, who has not won since last summer’s Brickyard 400, to FS1.

WHAT’S NEXT: Sunday, April 9, O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, 1:30 p.m. ET, Texas Motor Speedway. This will be the first race there after a complete repave and redesign of part of the track.

Follow @JerryBonkowski 

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.

 

Will Carl Edwards return? Denny Hamlin gives his odds of it happening

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What are the odds Carl Edwards returns to NASCAR after announcing in January he would not drive full-time?

“I would just be guessing, but I would say 50 percent,’’ former teammate Denny Hamlin said Friday at Richmond International Raceway — site of where Edwards scored one of his three Cup victories last season. “I think that Carl is a competitor. At his age (37), I’d find it hard to believe that he would just step away and not do it ever again.

“I think him leaving the window open in his press conference to say he’s not retiring, he’s just stepping away, I think it depends. I don’t know. Has anyone found out whether he’s having a good time right now or not? I think that would tell the story about whether he’s interested in coming back or not. From what I hear from all the retired drivers, it’s awesome for like a few months – then you kind of get bored a little bit.”

Earlier this week, Edwards responded by text to NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan on if he was interested in the No. 88 car after Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he would retire from the Cup series after this season.

Texted Edwards: “You may have it mixed up. I’m recruiting Dale to drive a tractor!”

Edwards also said that he was happy for Earnhardt and that it would be a great ride for someone.

Edwards announced in January that he would not race full-time in NASCAR this year, adding: “If I’m going to get back in a race car, which I’m not saying the R word (retirement) here, I’ve seen how that’s worked out for guys, but if I’m going to get back in a race car, I’m calling Coach (Joe) Gibbs first.’’

Edwards also said in January: “I don’t have any intention of going back to full‑time racing. I don’t have a plan to drive a race car right now. I just know how things work, and if it comes up and the right opportunity is there and at that moment, it’s the right thing, then for sure I’d entertain it. But like I said, the first person I’d talk to is Coach.’’

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