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Dale Earnhardt Jr. in ‘one hell of a hole’ in the points after Martinsville

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. thought Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway would be the “turning point” for his NASCAR Cup season.

Instead, Earnhardt said the No. 88 team is continuing to dig “ourselves one hell of a hole with this points situation.”

The Hendrick Motorsports driver shared his thoughts about his 34th place finish on Periscope a few hours after the race.

Earnhardt entered the event looking for his first top 10 of the season and he had the car to do it. Despite an average running spot of 14.5, Earnhardt was in the top 10 multiple times, even running in sixth at the end of the second stage.

But the team’s race unraveled multiple times before evaporating in radiator steam.

“Really disappointed today about how we finished because we definitely had a car that should have run in the top five,” Earnhardt said. “Haven’t been really that disappointed about where we finished before this season because we finished about where we should have. But this one sucks because anytime I finish where I don’t think I should have, I feel we didn’t do the job we should have done.”

The first dent in his day came on Lap 124 when Earnhardt went spinning down the backstretch as a result of contact with Ryan Blaney. Earnhardt’s car wasn’t damaged in the accident and he continued.

“I guess coming off Turn 4 at one point I squeezed (Blaney) into the wall,” Earnhardt said. “And I thought I about wrecked myself, because he about turned me into the fence. So I guess he got pretty pissed off about that. We come up off of Turn 2 and I spun the tires and had the car kind of sideways and he just kind of finished me off. He didn’t do me any favors there.

“Happy we didn’t hit anything when that happen. That would have pissed me off if we had hit something.”

It was the latest dust-up between the two drivers after they got into each other at Phoenix and Blaney cursed out Earnhardt on his scanner, which was highly publicized during the following week.

On Sunday night after the Martinsville affair, Earnhardt didn’t feel like talking to Blaney.

“Before I knew it, we were back in the top 15,” said Earnhardt, who picked up five stage points at the end of Stage 2 on Lap 260. “We had a fast car and it was fun as hell to drive.”

But that would be his high point.

During pit stops on Lap 394, Earnhardt and Aric Almirola were caught speeding on pit road, which sent them to the back of the pack.

“Everything was going decent until I sped on pit road and got ourselves back in the pack,” Earnhardt said. “I guess I can take a little bit of the blame for me getting torn up there at the end because we wouldn’t have been back there if we hadn’t sped.”

The No. 88 was torn up and Earnhardt’s day ended on Lap 418. That’s when a seven-car crash broke out in Turns 3 and 4. As cars ahead of him began getting collected, Earnhardt drove into back of teammate Kasey Kahne. The rear bumper of Kahne’s car broke through Earnhardt’s front end and “cracked” his radiator, causing a geyser of steam and an unrepairable car.

It also relegated Earnhardt to 25th in the points standings. He has 17 stage points heading to the last race before the Easter break, at Texas Motor Speedway.

“I’m glad we’ve got some speed,” Earnhardt said. “It gives me a little more confidence going into the next several weeks. We have dug ourselves one hell of a hole with this points situation with the way we’ve been finishing. We have to get our crap together. It starts this weekend, hopefully we get to Texas and get us a good run, damn.

“A little frustrating for sure. Martinsville’s a track I look forward to … I hate that I’m going to have to wait so long to get back there.”

Here’s the point(s): Brad Keselowski locked into second round already

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Brad Keselowski came into the NASCAR Cup playoffs concerned primarily about one thing: wins.

His strategy was if he won at least once in the first two or three rounds, it likely would leave him in good position to reach the final Round of 4 for the championship in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Ironically, Keselowski is just two races into the 10-race playoffs and he’s already advanced to the second round Round of 12 not on wins, but points.

After finishing sixth in the playoff opener last Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, Keselowski finished fourth in Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

That’s enough points earned to put Keselowski and Kyle Larson into the second round with points, while Chicagoland winner Martin Truex Jr. and New Hampshire winner Kyle Busch also advance to Round 2 with their victories.

While Keselowski would have liked to earn his first playoff win and third triumph of the season, knowing he doesn’t have to worry about where he’ll finish next Sunday in the first round elimination race at Dover gave the 2012 Cup champion satisfaction indeed.

“It was great execution,” Keselowski said. “The pit crew was really solid today and a pretty good setup too. (Crew chief) Paul Wolfe and the engineers did a good job putting the right stuff under the car.”

Even though he never led a lap in Sunday’s race, a win was definitely possible for Keselowski, even though he was contending with the Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Truex Jr.

He stayed in the top 5 for much of the race, didn’t suffer any problems on pit road and stayed out of trouble.

“I felt like we were where we needed to be to win and to run up front with the pit crew and the setup, just kind of lacking a little bit with aero stuff to keep up,” Keselowski said. “But on this type of track, aerodynamics are a little less important and I felt like it helped us run a little bit higher this week.”

Now, Keselowski can go into Dover a bit more relaxed, knowing he’ll race yet another day after next Sunday – as in the Round of 12 opener at Charlotte on Oct. 8.

“I think today this execution is as good as you can get,” Keselowski said. “A little bit of luck helps and of course you want to be the fastest car.

“That’s not the scenario with rules the way they are now, so we’ve got to make the most of it and hope to catch a few breaks and make sure we do our part.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. overcomes tough day to hold on to final transfer spot

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LOUDON, New Hampshire — No, there were not any bruises although Ricky Stenhouse Jr. admits it felt like “we were in a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather all week.’’

Stenhouse persevered Sunday, coming back from scraping the wall on Lap 7 of Sunday’s  race and getting lapped before halfway to finish 15th. That puts him in the final transfer spot for the second round with only next weekend’s race at Dover International Speedway left before the playoff field is trimmed.

Stenhouse is tied with Austin Dillon for the final transfer spot but owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. Stenhouse’s best finish in this round was the 15th-place finish he scored Sunday. Dillon’s best finish is 16th, which he scored last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

Stenhouse entered Sunday’s race four points behind Dillon for the final transfer spot. Odds were not in his favor to gain ground. Stenhouse had the worst average finish (20.44) at New Hampshire among the 16 playoff drivers coming into the race. It looked all weekend as if he’d struggle to make it into the top 20.

“We just couldn’t find speed, couldn’t find the handle on the car,’’ Stenhouse said. “We made a lot of adjustments for today and was surprisingly a little bit better than we were in practice. I didn’t think we were as capable of a car to finish where we did, but we did what we needed and had some good breaks and some good pit stops and ended up gaining some points. That was our goal, so I feel really good about that. I’d say we’ve had two sub-par weeks and we’re still in this thing, so we’ll regroup and get focused and go to Dover.”

Stenhouse has 2,044 points, tied with Dillon and one point ahead of Ryan Newman.

Dillon finished 19th and was involved in an incident with Kevin Harvick that spun Harvick and triggered an eight-car crash at the end of the second stage.

Dillon said he didn’t know what happened.

“He kept coming left and I was in the gas and he bobbled and when he bobbled I tapped him and it spun him out,’’ Dillon said of Harvick.

As for next week, Dillon said: “We’ve got to go get ‘em … and have a good race and we will see where we end up.”

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Kyle Larson: ‘Top fives will get us to Homestead’

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Kyle Larson has finished in second a lot.

His runner-up finish Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was his eighth of the year and his first in the playoffs.

In Sunday’s ISM Connect 300, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver started and finished second after failing to track down Kyle Busch in the closing laps of the race.

But Larson doesn’t mind, especially after he’s earned two top fives to open the playoffs.

“That’s a lot of second-place finishes this year, but I’m fine with second,” Larson told NBCSN. “Top fives will get us to Homestead (for the championship race), so hats off to everybody on our Target team. The pit crew was great all day. I think we gained spots every time. Normally I’m struggling on short tracks, but this year we were pretty good.”

Larson placed second in both New Hampshire races this year. Before this season, he hadn’t finished better than 10th in his previous four starts. He placed third and second in his first two New Hampshire starts in 2014.

Larson earned his first short-track win two weeks ago in the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway. The rest of his five Cup victories have come at 2-mile speedways, of which there are none in the playoffs. But there is the short track of Martinsville and the 1-mile oval at Phoenix in the third round.

Any sting of finishing second once again is likely dulled by the fact Larson has already advanced to the second round based on points.

But Larson wants to make more trips to victory lane in the final eight races.

“You could probably point your way to (the championship race), but I would prefer to get a win in each of these rounds,” Larson later said in his post-race press conference. “If we can keep the good runs going, we should be all right.

“Obviously, I think as you get into the later rounds, wins are even more important than they are now. We had good regular season points, gave ourselves some good playoff points. This first round I knew would be fairly easy, but I think as we get into the next round and then the third round, a win would be great.”

Larson leaves New Hampshire second in the NASCAR Cup standings. He is 24 points behind Martin Truex Jr.

Larson’s next chance to win in the first round of the playoffs is next weekend at the 1-mile Dover International Speedway. In his seven starts at the “Monster Mile,” Larson has three top fives.

Two of those were runner-up finishes, including in the last visit there in June.

NASCAR Cup standings after Loudon: 4 drivers locked into second round

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Four drivers emerged from Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with a bit of pressure taken off their shoulders.

In addition to race winner Kyle Busch and last week’s winner, Martin Truex Jr., Sunday runner-up Kyle Larson and fourth-place finisher Brad Keselowski are all locked into the second round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs, also known as the Round of 12.

That means no matter what happens at Dover International Speedway next Sunday, those four will have automatic berths in the second round.

Drivers in the first round that need strong results at Dover to advance — or run the risk of being eliminated if they don’t — are Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (12th place), Austin Dillon (13th), Ryan Newman (14th), Kurt Busch (15th) and Kasey Kahne (16th).

Following Sunday’s race, Martin Truex Jr. remains No. 1 in the standings, holding a 24-point lead over Larson, a 30-point edge over Kyle Busch, 43 points ahead of Brad Keselowski, 61 points ahead of Denny Hamlin and 62 points ahead of Matt Kenseth.

Click here for the full NASCAR Cup standings after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire.