NASCAR America: Dale Jarrett, Steve Letarte make their playoff ‘sleeper picks’ (video)

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Sure, lots of people are picking guys like Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch as favorites heading into the 10-race NASCAR Cup playoffs.

But on Tuesday’s NASCAR America, NASCAR On NBC analysts Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte came up with a couple of surprises when it came to choosing “sleeper picks” that could go several rounds, if not all the way to the Championship 4 round.

First, here’s DJ on why he’s picking Kurt Busch: “He won the Daytona 500. He’s seeded 12th. He’s been running extremely well, much better over these last five or six races. I think he’s the driver you pay attention to because they’ve found something that’s going to put them there.”

And here’s Steve on why he’s picking Ryan Blaney as his sleeper: “Ryan Blaney is the driver I feel is going to continue much farther into the playoffs than people expect. I think he’ll easily get out of the Round of 16 and … get into the Round of 8.”

Emotional year helped inspire Martin Truex Jr. to championship

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Martin Truex Jr. felt he could only do so much in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400. But if he was to win his first career NASCAR Cup championship, he was going to need some help.

Following all of Sunday’s post-victory celebrations, Truex and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex joined Krista Voda, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett on the NBC stage.

And that’s when Truex revealed he did what he could, but he left the outcome in the hands of a higher power.

“I’ve learned along the way that God has a plan, you never know what it’s going to be and sometimes, it’s your time,” Truex said. “This year felt like our year. Everything went the way we needed it to go. We worked hard, we worked our butts to get here.

“But at the end of the day, there is a higher power. And we worked hard, had faith in each other and had each other’s backs through thick and thin, no matter what it was.

“I’m just so thankful for (owner Barney Visser), his team, what he’s built and believing in me, four years ago when we were just awful. … The whole team is just a big family and it was just meant to be, I guess.

“There was a long time in this race where I thought, ‘This is tough, I don’t know how we’re going to get better,’ but I kept digging and telling them what I needed. Cole made the decision to change his pit strategy, caution comes out and we get the lead, and it’s ‘alright, it’s in my hands. I’ve gotta find it.’

“They were better than me all night long and I found something. I didn’t know if it was there, but I went and looked for it and I found it. Unbelievable.”

Even with the eight wins and now the championship, it’s still been a trying year for Furniture Row Racing. Crew chief Cole Pearn lost his best friend, Jacob Damen, to a bacterial infection in early August at the age of 35.

There also was the loss of team fabricator Jim Watson on Oct. 21, who died of a heart attack while the team was in Kansas City for that weekend’s playoff race.

And then Visser suffered a heart attack Nov. 4 and then underwent bypass surgery two days later. He’s still recovering, so much so that his doctors forbade him from traveling to Homestead and didn’t even allow him to watch the race on TV (he got updates via text throughout the event).

But the most emotional and difficult time of the season for Truex was what Pollex underwent. Pollex had been in remission from ovarian cancer, only to have it recur in early July.

Through Truex’s path to the championship, Pollex has continued to undergo chemotherapy treatment. It was the inner strength from her medical battle that proved to be an inspiration for Truex.

“I thought about this moment so many times but I couldn’t let myself get there because the emotions were just so strong after everything we’ve been through,” Pollex said. “To hear (Truex) say that, he understands now that there’s a bigger picture and God has a bigger plan for us, and that this is where we’re supposed to be, to help and inspire other people at home that are going through any struggle in their life, not just cancer, but everybody’s going through something.

“I feel like God put us in this place for a reason. I don’t want to have cancer, but I do, and I’m going to use my platform to help other people through our foundation and ‘#SherryStrong’ and I think we’ve done that this year.

“I tell him all the time that if you inspire and do things for other people, good things are going to happen to you one day and I truly believe that. I knew that in the end, they were going to come out a winner and it was amazing to be part of it tonight.”

Catch the entire interview with Truex and Pollex in the video above.

Matt Kenseth after potential final Cup start: ‘I did the best I could every week’

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While Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave one of his last TV interviews as a Cup driver in the middle of a loud throng of crew members and fans, Matt Kenseth‘s was typical of the 2003 Cup champion.

After finishing eighth, the 45-year-old driver spoke to NBC’s Kelli Stavast in a much quieter part of pit road by himself.

A week after his emotional win at Phoenix, Kenseth said he “didn’t think about much in the last 20 laps” of the Ford EcoBoost 400, likely the last race of his NASCAR career.

The only thing on his mind was “getting by the 2 car” of Brad Keselowski for one more position.

“Obviously, last week was a magical week or race – to win that race and then this week has been really fun,” said Kenseth, who won his 39th Cup race last Sunday. “The pre-race stuff was really fun. I was glad Katie (wife) was able to get down here and all and having the kids here, my dad, my sister and everybody.

“It was really fun, obviously, what DeWalt did with this paint job and Habitat for Humanity, but doing my rookie paint job was cool as well. So it was a really cool day.”

Kenseth and Earnhardt each drove the paint schemes from their 2000 rookie years. Before the race, Kenseth and Earnhardt’s cars were placed together on the starting grid so the long-time friends could take in the moment together.

Two hundred and sixty-seven laps later, Earnhardt finished 25th, three laps down. Kenseth took his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Toyota to his 327th top-10 finish.

His Phoenix win gave him 181 top fives.

Kenseth was asked what he hoped his legacy, which spans more than 20 years on the NASCAR circuit, would turn out to be.

“Some people are going to like you, some people aren’t,” Kenseth said “Some people are going to respect you, some people won’t. So I mean, whatever people think, they think. I did the best I could every week. Didn’t always do the right thing, that’s for sure, but raced as hard as I could and at the time I always felt like I was trying to do the right thing and gave it my all every time I went to the race track, so that’s all I could do.”

Watch the above video for the full interview.

Cup Championship drivers sound off after Miami finale

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Martin Truex Jr. triumphed over his three championship contenders Sunday night in the Ford EcoBoost 400, claiming the title against Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski.

The 37-year-old driver earned the title in his 12th full-time Cup season.

NBC talked with all four championship drivers following the race. Watch the above video for Truex’s first interview as a Cup champion. Below are interviews with the three other drivers.

Kyle Busch

Busch may have had the fastest car at the end of the race, but in the closing laps he was held up for an extended period of time by Joey Logano. He eventually got by the No. 22 Ford, but ran out of time to get around Truex and finished second in the race and the championship standings.

Busch shared his frustration with how Logano raced him when he talked to NBC.

Kevin Harvick

Harvick finished fourth in the race and third in the title standings. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver was in the Championship 4 for the third time and put SHR within reach of a title in its first year with Ford. Harvick was the only one of the four title contenders who didn’t lead a lap Sunday afternoon.

Brad Keselowski

Keselowski led one lap in the race and finished seventh in his first time in the Championship 4. Keselowski said the No. 2 team “threw everything we could at it” but couldn’t find enough speed to challenge the Toyotas of Truex and Busch. The Team Penske driver later lamented that non-Toyota teams didn’t have much of a chance to win the title.

What drivers said after season-ending NASCAR Cup race

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Here’s what drivers said after Sunday’s season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway:

Martin Truex Jr. – Winner: “I was a mess (after winning).  I couldn’t even talk. I was a wreck thinking about all the tough days, the bad days, the times where I thought my career was over with. Times when I didn’t think anyone believed in me. But the guys, the people who mattered did, my fans, my family and then when I got with this team – they’re unbelievable. They resurrected my career and made me a champion. I don’t even know what to say. … It’s just overwhelming. To think about all the rough days and bad days, the days that couldn’t run 20th, to be here, I never thought this day would come and to be here is so unbelievable.”

Kyle Busch – Finished second: “I mean that’s what happens when you lose in this format, but we gave it everything we had. We gave it our all, so congratulations to the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.). They deserved it probably on every other race but today. I thought we were better. Doesn’t matter though. They were out front when it mattered the most. Just unfortunate for us that that caution came out. It kind of ruined our race strategy and we weren’t able to get back to where we needed to be and then I had to fight way too hard with some other guys trying to get back up through there, but that’s racing.”

Kyle Larson – Finished third: “I wanted to win the race bad, but a good way to end the year. It showed we had a lot of speed all year long and congrats to the No. 78 (Martin Truex, Jr.) team they were the class of the field all year. It is pretty neat to see the top three there they were the three best cars all season. I wish I could have been a part of the final four, but had a little bit of bad luck here lately. It’s nice to see a checkered flag, it’s been about a month since I’ve seen one.”

Kevin Harvick – Finished fourth: “I think when you look at it from the inside out and all the work that everybody went through, the preparation that we went through to get to these playoffs was second to none. It was a championship effort. Just came up a little bit short. Congratulations to Martin (Truex Jr.). Those guys have been the dominant car all year. To go win the race and make it happen at the end they were able to get their car better and win the championship.”

Chase Elliott – Finished fifth: “Yeah, it was solid. To finish fifth in the standings and to run fifth tonight, it definitely was not a win, but from where we were yesterday to how we ran at the beginning of the race and so on, I was pretty pleased with that. … Have some work to do, I’m excited about next year, we have some great things to build on. We will see what next year brings and go from there.”

Joey Logano – Finished sixth: “That was a good night for us. We never quit through the whole year and we end it on a strong note. It is always important to have a good run at Homestead because you have the whole offseason to think about it. … Altogether, I am proud of getting a sixth-place run out of a car that we thought we would struggle to finish 20th with. We made good changes and had something to race with and get to head off on a good note.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished seventh: “We ran as hard as we could and put it all out there and just basically didn’t have enough speed. On the mile-and-a-halves we weren’t as good as the 78 (Truex) and 18 (Kyle Busch) and those guys. This last race coming down to a mile-and-a-half didn’t particularly bode well for us, but my team ran as hard as they could run.  They made some great calls – Paul Wolfe and everybody and put ourselves in position every chance we could to make the most out of the opportunities that existed without just being lightning fast, but it wasn’t there.”

Matt Kenseth – Finished eighth: “Obviously, last week was a magical week or race – to win that race and then this week has been really fun. The pre-race stuff was really fun. I was glad Katie (wife) was able to get down here and all and having the kids here, my dad, my sister and everybody. It was really fun obviously what DeWalt did with this paint job and Habitat for Humanity, but doing my rookie paint job was cool as well. So it was a really cool day. … (On his legacy) Some people are going to like you, some people aren’t. Some people are going to respect you, some people won’t. So I mean, whatever people think, they think. I did the best I could every week. Didn’t always do the right thing, that’s for sure, but raced as hard as I could and at the time I always felt like I was trying to do the right thing and gave it my all every time I went to the race track, so that’s all I could do.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 10th: “What a comeback for us. We battled tight through the corner and loose off. It cost us some valuable track position there in the first stage, but we raced our way back onto the lead lap and that’s when our Caterpillar Chevrolet became pretty sporty. It really responded well during the long green-flag runs so we knew if we kept up with the track, we would stay in the game. To pick up two spots at the end to finish our season and finish 10th, gives us some momentum going into next season. I want to thank all the guys back at the shop at RCR as well as ECR for giving me a car capable of running for a championship.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 11th: “The Dow WeatherTech Chevrolet was pretty good today, so I’m glad we could put a period on the 2017 season with a solid finish. I didn’t have enough grip to run the high line during the race, which is normally the preferred line at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but I felt pretty good running lower on the track. During that last run, we were just too loose to make anything happen. Still, we were able to clinch 11th in the final driver’s point standings, which is pretty cool. I’m proud of everyone on this program and appreciate all of the hard work this year. We’re a bunch of racers and we’ll be back even stronger next season.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 12th: “Man, the track was a lot slicker than I expected when we started the race. We had a good car, but we were on knife edge all night. First we are too loose, and we made an adjustment and we’d be too tight. It’s hard to believe the year is over. I’m proud of all the people on the No. 14 team. They worked hard this season. We’ll enjoy the off-season and be ready to race again in Daytona.”

AJ Allmendinger – Finished 14th: “We struggled all weekend so I really didn’t know what to expect going into the race. The guys did a good job. They made some changes and the car was at least raceable during the race. … I thought we maximized the race with the best strategy we could have. It’s something to build on. We definitely need to be better, but the stuff we tried this weekend is something to build on and learn from going into next year.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 15th: “I’m disappointed because I thought we should’ve had a top-10 but unfortunately we hit something on the track that cut our tire,” Stenhouse said. “Our goal the past couple of weeks was to finish in the top 10, and we were close every weekend. This has been a great season for our No. 17 team and I’m definitely looking forward to carrying this momentum into the off-season and kicking off 2018 strong.”

Paul Menard — Finished 16th: “It was nice to finish the season and my time at Richard Childress Racing with a solid finish here at Homestead. The Richmond / Menards Chevrolet was a handful to start, but (crew chief) Matt Borland made a great adjustment and the car came to life. I have to thank Richard Childress and everyone at RCR and ECR for all of the support over the years. We didn’t have the best season, but this is a great group of guys and we have had some fun.”

Trevor Bayne — Finished 19th: “We battled all day. We rallied back after having to make that unscheduled stop under green and never gave up. I want to thank all of my guys on this team for their hard work throughout this entire season. We fought hard and even though tonight’s result wasn’t what we were looking for I am proud of our effort and will be ready to come back stronger in 2018.”

Chris Buescher – Finished 20th: “Decent day starting from the back trying to get up there from the start. This place is a lot of fun, a lot of different grooves. It’s a really interesting place. Interesting enough we were on the bottom all race that seemed to be where we were better. A little bit different than Homestead’s in the past for me. But a top-20 run to finish the year off is not bad. We will look forward to 2018 and hopefully everyone enjoys well deserved time off.”

Erik Jones – Finished 21st (won Rookie of the Year honors): “It was a good year overall. You know we had a lot of good races and a lot of good things that we can look back on and be really proud of. I think back to the races we were in contention to win and shots we had – and it’s just nice in your rookie season to have that chance to win races. Wasn’t the night we wanted tonight, but definitely cool to at least get the accumulation of the year of being the best rookie.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Finished 25th: “I’m not sure what the feeling is (about running his final race). I didn’t cry until I was hugging Rick’s (Hendrick) neck. Man, he’s been like a father to me with the things he’s done for me personally, and in personal stuff. He’s really helped me more than anybody will ever know. And he’s done that for a lot of people and so I will miss trying to make him proud. I know I will still be able to do things that will make him proud because he’s like a daddy. I’ll miss driving his cars and trying to make him proud on the race track. … It’s time for somebody else to get in this car. It’s a great opportunity for Alex (Bowman) and I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 26th: “What a rookie year it’s been. I’ve learned so much about myself as a driver. Today wasn’t the ending to the year that we wanted. We had them there at the end and could’ve gotten ourselves a top-15 finish, but I just barley scrubbed the wall and cut the right-rear tire at the very end. … We’ve had a lot of bright spots and some not so bright ones, but that’s our season and it’s one that we will build on for next year. We’re going to grind through the offseason and be ready in Daytona.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished 29th: “It’s been a fun year for sure. It’s a shame it ended not on a high note but it’s been fun to run every week at the racetrack and be competitive. To win a race, that was pretty great. It’s been a fun year overall and its kind of bittersweet to see it come to an end. I’m happy for what’s next to come. I love driving for the Wood Brothers. It’s been a fun three years and I’ll always remember it.”

Danica Patrick – Finished 37th: “I hit the wall in (Turns) 3 and 4 and got some fender rub on the tire and it blew the tire. I went a couple of laps and there was smoke in the car, but they thought it was all right, but it wasn’t (due to fire). What I’m not looking forward to is I have to go sit in my bus and wait for everyone to get done with the race before I can go home. That sucks, but I think that what’s coming ahead is bright for me and for the way it feels, so I’m excited.”

We’ll have more driver quotes shortly. Please check back soon.