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What Drivers Said after Monday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Monday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway:

Clint Bowyer – WINNER: “This is a place where I’ve gotten so close. I wanted to win this grandfather clock so bad. … We got so close back in 2012. …  For whatever reason, it felt right driving up here. … I told (son Cash) this morning, I was like, ‘Damn it, we’ve got to get our picture in victory lane.’ He told me he wanted a checkered flag. Let me tell you something, Gene Haas, Tony Stewart, to give this old dog a fresh chance and fresh blood with a new opportunity. Finally, to get the 14 in victory lane is just a weight off the shoulders. It’s been a long time. You start to question if you can get it done or not. To have it come at this place meant a lot. … This place is an acquired taste. When I first got here I was a duck out of water just like everybody else that starts here at first. I learned from Jimmie Johnson and learned from Jeff Gordon, sometimes the hard way, but nonetheless I learned over the years and finally put it to good use. To keep Kyle Busch, one of the best in the business behind you in those closing laps, the nerves were through the roof. It’s unbelievable how it all came true and to have everybody here.”

KYLE BUSCH – Finished 2nd: “We have to keep executing and doing a good job. That’s what we’re doing right now, it’s just not working our way. The M&M’s Caramel Camry was really close today. It wasn’t as good in practice. I thought we were better today than we were in practice, so that’s an improvement. … I was not expecting the 14 (Clint Bowyer) as one of those guys that was going to stay there and be one we had to race for the win. It’s funny. All of our finishes, for as good as we are in second place, as far ahead as we are of third, the leader is that far ahead of us. It seems like we’re kind of on our own island but then we get beat by somebody else on their own island. All is good, we just have to keep going.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished 3rd: “It was a good showing for us, for sure. I think the track tightened up a good bit there towards the end and we just got a little bit behind. Congrats to Clint for winning that race. It was fun racing with him for a bit, but for us to come out of here and lead a bunch of laps, win a stage and run third here at Martinsville – where I usually run terrible – that says a lot about this team and the preparation that they did getting ready for this race. That’s nice to have, we just need to be a little bit better.”

Martin Truex Jr. – Finished 4th: “It’s just so cool to see (Bowyer win a race). He’s worked so hard through a lot and has had a couple of tough seasons. And now he’s obviously with a great team. They have started the year off strong. He’s always been strong here at Martinsville. I know this place is special to him and it’s really cool to see him win today. … It’s cool to see him win with his kid here and everything. I couldn’t imagine the emotion he has right now. … It was definitely a difficult day for us – we struggled early, the second stage we really, really got bad and fell backwards, dropped like a rock. I think we barely stayed on the lead lap at the end of that second segment. … We made a bunch of (adjustments) and got better on the long run and made it back to the front of the field. … You never know how it’s going to go, but I’m proud of my guys for sticking with it. We were all pretty frustrated early on trying to figure it out, just kept our heads down and kept digging and came home with a great finish.”

Kevin Harvick – Finished 5th: “I didn’t mess it up today. We had a good car and saw how fast the SHR cars can be with the right driver in them here. This hasn’t been one of my better spots, but everything today went reasonably well and we were able to get Clint to Victory Lane and it was a good day for our Jimmy John’s/Busch Ford. … It’s been a long road for (Bowyer) and I’m really, really proud of him and (crew chief) Mike (Bugarewicz) and everybody for sticking with it because you could see that they had potential and they could do things that were gonna be good, so they just needed to get that year under their belt and have it right.”

Joey Logano – Finished 6th: “At the start of the race we may have made some bad changes over the snow break and weren’t really good compared to where we were in practice. The team made some good adjustments and got to the end there and were probably a third-place car, but it was too little, too late to get back up there; I drove back up to sixth. I was catching up to fifth and wanted a top-five stat because it at least sounds a little better than sixth, but we’ve been kind of stuck there in sixth or seventh no matter where we’re at right now, so we’ve got to find a little bit more speed. I’m proud of the fight and proud of everyone that keeps building these good, solid, consistent cars. Pit road is always consistent, so that’s nice. We’ve just got to go a little faster.”

Alex Bowman – Finished 7th: “It’s frustrating to say we are looking for a seventh, but much better than we have been the last couple of weeks and just happy for all my guys. They have worked really hard all off season and all year. We haven’t had the results we wanted, so to come here and finish stronger is definitely a step in the right direction. We’ve got a long way to go, but we are headed the right way. … We know we are off, but everybody is just real motivated and working harder. It’s a lot of guys that have won a lot of races and they want to get back to that winning feeling. So, they are all working really hard and got the best in the business back at the shop working to get better.”

A.J. Allmendinger – Finished 8th: “It was just a solid day. We were just missing just a little bit to go up there and run with the best of them. The last set of tires didn’t agree with the car, the car was bouncing around a lot. It’s unfortunate that our last set of tires were our worst, but that happens. We still got a top 10 out it, ran in the top 10 all day and was able to start 25th and pass a lot of cars. Solid day, what we needed at one of our better racetracks. These are the places we know that we have a better chance at and we have to take advantage of it. So, I would say I’m okay with eighth, I wish we could have got a little bit more at the end of the race there, but a solid day all around.”

Chase Elliott – Finished 9th: “I thought our last run was way better than what we had had before that.  But, we were just way too far off there for the majority of the day to expect that you are going to catch up by the end.  We have some work to do.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished 10th: “I tore up the car a little bit on the nose and bent up the splitter and the car wasn’t quite the same after that. I just made a mistake there.”

Denny Hamlin – Finished 12th: “He (Harvick) just got to me and I think bumped me three or four times. And then I was just bumping him back and he brake-checked me. I probably shouldn’t have brake-checked him in the first place. They were just some light bumps here and then slammed on the brakes here. So, classy. … We still have to work on a few things but this is definitely a step in the right direction from where we’ve been in the past couple of races here. Really happy with the FedEx Camry. We didn’t get a good finish like we probably deserved but all-in-all, a decent day. No mistakes. We’ll keep building from this.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 14th: “I worked all day to get my track position back after the first mistake, and then I made another. But our Mobil 1 Ford Fusion was fast, and while we needed to roll the corner a bit better all day, we still had a solid run. All of our finishes at Stewart-Haas have been solid this year, really showing that Mobil 1 oil technology performs on the track and Mobil 1 Annual Protection can do the same for our fans at home.”

Erik Jones – Finished 17th: “Martinsville is kind of a tough place for myself. Kind of ran where we thought would. Wanted to run better but we struggled a little bit all weekend. Just didn’t have the forward drive. Hopefully, it’ll be a little bit better for the fall (race at Martinsville) and finish toward the top 10.”

William Byron – Finished 20th: “The first couple of runs I thought we were decent.  Fifty lap runs seemed to be kind of our money spot, we needed a lot of 50-lap runs.  I think that once we got into the run we struggled a little bit and towards the end we kind of managed.  We just needed a couple of more short runs to kind of be able to gain some spots, but not bad.  Not what we wanted by far, but this is a fun racetrack and hopefully come back stronger in the fall.”

Michael McDowell – Finished 21st: “The long run was good, the short runs we struggle a little bit. We had a brake fan issue there that kept flipping the breaker, so I’m not sure if we got something stuck in it, but we didn’t have a whole lot of brakes left to challenge at the end. I don’t think it cost us a whole lot, maybe a couple spots, but every point matters. We still haven’t reached our potential, but we’re close to the Top 20, so not bad.”

David Ragan – Finished 25th: “We just started off way too slow. Our car wouldn’t roll the center and didn’t have good forward drive, so it made for a real long day. We raced hard and we just never caught any lucky breaks and we couldn’t make our car better, so we’ll definitely have to go back to the drawing board before the fall.”

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NASCAR America: Matt Kenseth and Roush Fenway Racing fit perfectly

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Matt Kenseth assuming the driver duties of the No. 6 may be only a part of his future with Roush Fenway Racing.

“Obviously my driving is not the long-term answer for the 6 car,” Kenseth said to NBC’s Marty Snider during Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America. “Probably will be for the foreseeable future, but not a long-term answer. So I’m looking forward to seeing who the next guys are. Seeing if I can help Trevor, if I can help Ricky – and see if I can be a part of the company, making it better.”

And it was that last comment that raised the eyebrows of the panelists.

“We’ve heard Jack talk recently in the press about how he’s on a transition out of the company,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “He’s looking for somebody or some kind of group of people to come in and carry this company forward. And this could be the first domino, I guess, in that transition.”

Jeff Burton, who raced for Roush from 1996 through August 2004 knows the passion former drivers for the organization still have.

“I wasn’t surprised that Matt said ‘I’m still a part of Roush Racing,’ because of the way Jack runs that program,” Burton said. “When you’re one of his drivers, you’re one of his drivers. He gives you a lot of rope and it makes you take ownership in that company.”

Kenseth’s value to the organization does not only come from the results he will give them on the track, but rather in how he helps them identify potential issues that need to be fixed. As an 18-year veteran, he is the franchise driver they have been looking for – basically since he left Roush after the 2012 season.

“I will raise my hand as one of the people that were very concerned we wouldn’t see a Roush Fenway in four or five years,” Steve Letarte said. “Because, I know they have been trying to get better, but going about it in a way that didn’t excite me. I heard a lot of the same names, a lot of the same people.”

“I was concerned the ingredients were already in the bowl at some point and it didn’t work. When you look at Matt Kenseth, I think he can come in there on a Tuesday and say ‘guys, it’s not motor, it’s aero. Guys, it’s not aero, it’s pit stops.’ He has nothing to prove in his career like the two young drivers do.”

When Kenseth announced his retirement last year, he said he would only return if the opportunity was the right one.

“It’s not just about driving,” Kenseth said. “If it was just about driving, I probably would have been at Daytona. But there’s a lot of other things in the organization. I feel they are definitely on the upswing from where they were two years ago. Even last year, to now. I feel like the cars are running better. I think we’re going to run OK, and I think I can help the organization keep getting stronger.”

Watch the above video for more commentary.

NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr. explores concussion recovery in new book

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A year to the day after announcing he would retire from full-time NASCAR competition, Dale Earnhardt Jr. revealed an upcoming book about his experiences with concussions, notably the one in 2016 that nearly ended his career.

“Racing to the Finish: My Story” is co-written by ESPN’s Ryan McGee and is scheduled to be published Oct. 16. You can pre-order it now.

Earnhardt revealed the book Wednesday on NASCAR America and explained the inspiration behind it.

The 15-time most popular driver missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season after he began experiencing concussion-like symptoms during the July race weekend at Kentucky Speedway. The symptoms stemmed from a wreck at Michigan International Speedway three races earlier.

Many of the details in the book come from a journal Earnhardt began keeping during his first concussion experience in 2012.

“I don’t think nobody outside (wife) Amy and my doctor knows exactly everything that went on, and how bad it was” Earnhardt said. “There’s a couple of reasons I wanted to write this book. My fans ask me all the time about why I retired early from driving when I probably had a couple of more years. I think this will answer all those questions.”

Earnhardt hopes the book will also help those who have gone through similar situations and felt “helpless.”

“There’s some really, really bad moments, very dark moments,” Earnhardt said of his recovery. “There’s some helpless moments. You want to give up. Luckily, I had a really good doctor that I could call at any hour of the night and talk me off this ledge and help me understand that this is going to get better and tell me that you’ve fixed this in someone else.”

Earnhardt was open during his recovery process, posting videos of himself taking part in exercises to show what he was doing to get back to full strength.

“When I was writing all those notes, I didn’t know why I was writing them other than I was scared of what I was feeling and what I was going through,” Earnhardt said. “If something were to happen to me where I couldn’t articulate these experiences, there they would be.”

Even before his 2016 concussion, Earnhardt revealed he would donate his brain to CTE research.

Watch the above video for more.

 

Long: Can Matt Kenseth return Roush Fenway to its glory days?

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Blue skies poked through the gray clouds that had hung over the city for most of two days, delivering rain, wind and gloom.

Inside the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday morning, the forecast also was about to change for one Cup team.

Matt Kenseth is back in NASCAR to help turnaround Roush Fenway Racing.

It’s an interesting challenge for me and not just being a driver,’’ said Kenseth, who has 39 career Cup victories to rank 20th on the all-time list. “I hope I can be much more to the organization, and I’m hoping that there are a lot of different ways I can help in.’’

An organization that once dominated — Roush won 15 races and placed five cars in the top 10 in points in 2005 — has struggled to be competitive and retain drivers.

Kenseth left after the 2012 season. Carl Edwards departed after 2014. Greg Biffle left after 2016 because there wasn’t enough sponsorship to fund a car.

While Wednesday was a day for Roush Fenway Racing to celebrate and look toward the future, there is much work to do for an organization that has one top-10 finish between Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne.

“We have enough resources to fix any number of things but what is very difficult to discern with a young driver lineup like we have is what is most important,’’ Tommy Wheeler, operations director at Roush Fenway Racing, told NBC Sports. “What is going to be the most impactful today to make the car faster?’’

Bayne likely wouldn’t be sharing the No. 6 the rest of the year with Kenseth if his team’s performance hadn’t dipped.

Bayne has run in the top 15 in 10.5 percent of the laps run this season (Stenhouse is at 39.9 percent). Bayne’s average finish is 23.9 — compared to 19.5 last year — and he ranks 25th in the series in average running position (23.0).

“Really, when we look at last year, (Bayne’s team) and (Stenhouse’s team) were fairly close in overall performance, the 17 (of Stenhouse) was certainly better and certainly that split got greater this year and that’s just … not the direction we’re wanting to continue down,’’ Wheeler told NBC Sports.

Kenseth understands the challenge he’ll face. After winning races in six of the past seven seasons, the focus is different.

“I don’t think any of us expect to come out and win races,’’ Kenseth said. “That would be great if you could, and I think we expect to eventually. I don’t think that the summer and a part-time schedule that we expect to win, but I do feel like the cars are much more competitive, I feel like they’re on the right track.’’

Wheeler said the work starts now. The team will integrate Kenseth in all that it is doing. Kenseth noted that he’s been watching races more closely and studying notes “the last few weeks” as the deal was put together.

As for why this wasn’t done at the start of the year when Kenseth was available, car owner Jack Roush had a simple answer.

“I still had a little bit of a rawness over the fact that he left me when he did,’’ Roush said. “We had another championship out there, I thought, that we could have had in short order. I missed that, so it took me a little while to get over it.”

With the performance down this year, Roush needed to act quickly.

Mark Martin, who has served in a consultant-type role since the playoffs last year, said what Kenseth can help the team with could make a significant impact for Stenhouse — who had three sponsors extend deals with the team last week.

“I have hopes (of the team winning) because I know the tools are there at the organization, I know the people are there at the organization,’’ Martin said. “Really, what’s preventing them right now is a little bit of enthusiasm and direction to be able to use those tools and spend that time on the part that bears fruit.

“You do that and put that in Ricky Stenhouse’s hands, he’ll get it done. Right now, Ricky is just trying too freaking hard. I think if we could get him in a little faster race car, I would hope that maybe he could tune it down. He’s just driving so hard right now, it’s hard to watch for me. I just feel like we have all the tools, we just still don’t have the cars fast enough inherently.’’

Stenhouse has had to go to a backup car in three of the first nine races because of accidents during practice.

Stenhouse, who made the playoffs last year, will be the team’s only driver eligible for the playoffs since it seems unlikely NASCAR would grant a waiver for Bayne or Kenseth if they’re not running the full season because of a team decision.

For Stenhouse to make the playoffs and be a factor, the organization must be better at the 1.5-mile tracks that play a key role in the Cup season. It’s no coincidence that Kenseth will make his debut May 12 at Kansas Speedway, a 1.5-mile speedway and be back in the car for the May 19 All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, another 1.5-mile track.

“We’ve got to perform on the mile-and-a half tracks or we’re going to be disappointed with our end-of-the year results,’’ Wheeler told NBC Sports. “Making the playoffs was really our goal last year. Well, now it’s about making the playoffs and making a strong run, validating that we deserve to be there and that we’re going to be competitive on these mile-and-a-half tracks that eat up so much of the schedule.’’

The rest of the driver schedule for the No. 6 car is to be worked out between Bayne, Kenseth and sponsor obligations.

That’s just a small part of the work ahead for Kenseth.

His biggest task is if he can help change Roush Fenway Racing’s fortunes and return the team to sunnier days?

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Ryan Blaney honors father with Southern 500 paint scheme

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Ryan Blaney‘s throwback paint scheme for this season’s Southern 500 is personal.

The Team Penske driver will pay tribute to the NASCAR career of his father, former Cup driver Dave Blaney, in the Sept. 2 race at Darlington Raceway.

The No. 12 Ford will look like the No. 77 Jasper sponsored Ford the elder Blaney drove in the 2003 Cup season.

The car was revealed on NASCAR’s Facebook Live page. 

That year, Dave Blaney earned his first of two career Cup poles and his first of four top fives. The top five came in the spring race at Darlington.

Dave Blaney made 473 Cup starts from 1992 through 2014.

His son, in his first full-time season with Penske, will make his fourth Southern 500 start. His best finish is 13th in 2016.

Ryan Blaney is eighth in the Cup points standings through nine races.

MORE: Matt DiBenedetto pays tribute to Jeff Burton with Darlington scheme