Long: Stage racing at Martinsville delivered what was promised


MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Sunday was what NASCAR drivers, series officials, team executives and former racers forecasted when they introduced stage racing in January.

“The stages are going to bring a lot of excitement for the drivers and the fans.’’ — Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“The single-file, high-line ride out, those days are gone.’’ — Brad Keselowski

“When a race fan buys a ticket to go to a race, that race fan deserves to see a race that matters. That race fan deserves to see a race that’s going to impact the championship.’’ — NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton

The point was that with points earned based on finishes in the first two stages, drivers would take more chances and create action that might not have been seen in the past at such junctures.

What happened at the end of Stage 2 Sunday at Martinsville Speedway could define the playoffs … or at least define what drivers will accept in the closing laps.

Kyle Busch was dominant in the second stage and seemed headed toward a stage victory.

He admits that would have been critical to have won and earned a playoff point since his team has yet to win a race this season. He also made note of Joe Gibbs Racing’s lack of wins in the playoffs. JGR has three victories in the last 30 playoff races (10 percent), while having won 25 of the 78 regular-season races (32.1 percent) during that same time.

As the end of Stage 2 neared Sunday, Busch came upon a group of cars trying to stay on the lead lap. There were Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Clint Bowyer among others. They weren’t going to make it easy on Busch, who had a comfortable lead on Chase Elliott as he approached the cars.

Busch worked his way through some of the cars and ran alongside Dillon on the backstretch on the final lap of the stage. If Busch lapped Dillon, Stenhouse would lose the free pass position because he had been passed moments earlier.

Stenhouse responded by running up to the back of Busch’s car entering Turn 3 and pushing the leader up the track. Stenhouse got by to remain on the lead lap (he went on to finish the race 10th), and Elliott nipped Busch to win the stage and collect that one playoff point.

“It was as hard as I could drive,’’ Stenhouse said. “I got sponsors, fans and a team to take care of. I had to stay on the lead lap.’’

He had extra incentive because he knew a caution was coming. Stenhouse had to make his move then.

His action left Busch lamenting that lost point and thinking of the future.

“When you got the leader to the outside and you keep banging him off the corner, that’s pretty disrespectful but do whatever you want, it’s going to come back and bite you one of these days,’’ Busch said. “We’ve just got to always remember that race car drivers are like elephants, they remember everything.’’

Busch knows how valuable bonus points can be for the playoffs.

When he won the 2015 championship, Busch made it out of the first round based on bonus points for wins. If he hadn’t had those, he would not have advanced and there would have been a different champion that season. Last year, Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, advanced to the third round instead of Austin Dillon based on a tiebreaker.

“That’s what this format is supposed to be about is having moments like that,’’ winner Brad Keselowski said. “Whether you agree with specific moves is really neither here nor there. But when you put things on the line, when you put more on the line throughout the race, you get more moments like that, and I think in the end, the fans win and the sport wins.’’

Everyone won Sunday but Kyle Busch.

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Camping World Truck Series practice report from Martinsville

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Justin Haley was fastest in the first of three Camping World Truck Series practice sessions Friday at Martinsville Speedway.

The GMS Racing driver topped Noah Gragson in the final moments of the session with a speed of 94.125 mph.

Gragson, the defending winner at Martinsville, posted a speed of 93.891 mph.

The top five was completed by Matt Crafton (93.738), John Hunter Nemechek (93.724) and Johnny Sauter (93.622).

Justin Fontaine recorded the most laps in the session with 70.

Check back for more.

NASCAR America: Aric Almirola confident after fast start

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Aric Almirola heads into Sunday’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway 10th in the points and full of confidence with an opening five-race stretch that has seen him finish no worse than 13th in a Cup race for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Almirola told NASCAR America’s Marty Snider on Thursday that the start of the season has him “loose and I’m excited and I’ve got this spark and this energy that is so good right now.’’

Almirola said he and crew chief John Klausmeier are working well together. That and SHR’s fast cars have provided a strong combination.

“I think it just starts with Johnny and I having a relationship prior to this year,’’ Almirola said of working with Klausmeier. “I knew Johnny Klausmeier from when I was at DEI back in 2007, 2008 and we’ve been friends ever since. Now when you put us in this environment where we have to work together and we have to perform together … it helps us communicate. So far it’s working well. We still have a long ways to go. We want to win races, we want to contend for a championship.’’

For more on what Almirola said, watch the video above.

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PNC Bank becomes official bank of NASCAR

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NASCAR announced Friday it has agreed to a five-year deal with PNC Bank to become the official bank and official wealth management partner of the sport.

PNC Bank will have exclusive status and promotional rights around retail, corporate and private banking across the country and U.S. military bases abroad. The bank will be at key NASCAR races throughout each season to provide financial insights to drivers, teams, tracks and sponsors.

The agreement is PNC Bank’s first with a sports league.

PNC is the latest Fortune 500 company to invest in the sport.

According to NASCAR, more than 1 in 4 Fortune 500 companies invested in NASCAR in 2017 – a seven percent increase year-over-year.

Friday 5: Passion on and off the track

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There’s been much to talk about this season but some of the conversation has centered more on what has happened off the track.

Maybe Kyle Busch can help return the talk to the track this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

Admittedly, three of the first five races having a margin of victory of 2.6 seconds or more (last week Martin Truex Jr. won by 11.6 seconds) takes away some of the excitement for some even as Kevin Harvick won three races in a row.

Other than Harvick’s dominance, some of the buzzy topics this season has been Harvick talking about the need to build up grassroots racing, why Busch wasn’t interviewed on TV after last weekend’s race at Auto Club (and then his responses to Twitter trolls) and how Austin Dillon and members of his team got tattoos on their rear end after winning the Daytona 500.

All worthy topics to generate conversation, but the discussion on the racing hasn’t been as paramount to this point.

Martinsville comes just in time to change that. The series is back at the track for the first time since Denny Hamlin’s contact knocked Chase Elliott out of the lead late in the fall race and fans saw a level of emotion they hadn’t seen from Elliott. If you don’t recall, Busch went on to win that race.

Last spring had its excitement with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. bumping Busch out of the way to stay on the lead lap, opening the door for Elliott to win a stage. Later in that race, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch engaged in a spellbinding duel before Keselowski pulled away and went on to win. Busch finished second.

Right now, Busch is one of the main drivers who stirs the drink in a sport that has seen fan favorites Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, among others, retire.

Even Earnhardt said as much on his podcast this week.

“The one thing that I’ve learned over the last several years … was the sport needs people like Kyle,’’ Earnhardt said on the Dale Jr. Download. “Even if you don’t like the guy, the sport needs all kinds of personalities, and we can’t have 40 heroes out there racing.

“We can’t have 40 Captain Americas out there competing against each other. You gotta have a Batman, you gotta have a Robin, you gotta have a Superman, you gotta have a Joker. You gotta have all of that to create storylines and create rivalries.”

The sport’s best rivalry is Keselowski and Busch. It’s one that simmers and then explodes, whether it is in their duel at Martinsville last year, their contact at Watkins Glen, Busch’s Twitter response to Keselowski after Keselowski’s comments about Toyota’s dominance entering the playoffs or Busch simply saying at the news conference before last year’s Miami championship race of Busch: “Sometimes you just don’t like a guy.’’

This weekend could be a chance for such feelings to bubble or maybe from somebody else. With an off weekend afterward, it would give fans something to talk about.

2. An impassioned defense

BK Racing car owner Ron Devine was combative at times, calling the procedure “nonsense” while on the stand for about 2 1/2 hours Thursday in federal bankruptcy court.

Devine, who turned to address the judge at times when answering questions from attorneys, was on the stand defending his right to run BK Racing despite millions of dollars in losses in recent years and unpaid bills.

Union Bank & Trust, which claims it is owed more than $8 million in loans from Devine, seeks to have a trustee put in charge of the team. Union Bank & Trust stated in documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy court that BK Racing had lost about $30 million from 2014-16.

MORE: Court filing lists expenses, revenue for each race 

MORE: Rare peek into race purses, payouts

Devine said on the stand that the team had signed a sponsor agreement Wednesday with EarthWater for $3.6 million for the rest of the season. The amount is to be paid in cash, shares of stock and product. Devine said that if the judge ruled to have a bank-appointed trustee run the team, the sponsor would not remain, noting a line that in the agreement that the deal was null and void if Devine was not running the team.

Devine, who said his organization had “low teens” in terms of full-time employees, stated that those employees would quit if a trustee took over. Devine said the only reason the bank wanted a trustee was to sell the team’s charter. He accused the bank of soliciting bids for the charter.

Turning to the judge, Devine said of having a trustee run the team instead of him: “There’s no way he can operate the team. He has no knowledge and ability to operate my team.’’

Devine estimated he had spent half a million dollars of his own money since December to offset deficits at BK Racing. During the testimony, Devine confirmed that he sold one of the team’s charters before the 2017 season to Front Row Motorsports for $2 million.

“I can run this race team,’’ Devine said in court.

The matter has been continued until Wednesday.

3. West Coast review

While Kevin Harvick dominated the West Coast swing, winning two of the three races, Kyle Busch had the best average finish for the events at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana.

Of course, Harvick’s 35th-place finish Sunday after contact with Kyle Larson ruined his average finish.

Here’s who had the best average finish for the three races:

2.3 — Kyle Busch

3.3 — Martin Truex Jr.

7.7 — Kyle Larson

8.0 — Erik Jones

8.3 — Brad Keselowski

Here’s who scored the most points in the three races:

147 — Martin Truex Jr.

146 — Kyle Busch

125 — Brad Keselowski

120 — Kyle Larson

115 — Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined to lead 75.2 percent of the laps run on the West Coast swing. Harvick led 252 laps, Busch led 200 laps and Truex led 134 laps.

4. In case you missed it …

Only three drivers scored a top-10 finish in each of the three West Coast swing races: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Erik Jones.

5. Back in time

Jimmie Johnson has nine career Martinsville victories (in 32 starts for a winning percentage of 28.1 percent) but has two top-10 finishes — including a win in October 2016 — in the last seven starts there. He’s led only in two of those seven races. He once had a streak of 17 consecutive top-10 finishes there, including six wins.

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