Jeff Gordon

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Who will be next Cup driver to win multiple championships?

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As NASCAR’s driver lineup transitions, Jimmie Johnson is the only active competitor with more than one Cup championship.

Not since 2005 has there been a Cup season where there was only one multi-time champion racing full-time. That year it was Jeff Gordon with his four titles. Six other drivers had one title going into that season and Tony Stewart won the championship for his second crown.

Three of the four championship contenders entering Sunday’s race in Miami own one title each — Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch — while Martin Truex Jr. seeks his first crown.

Before the playoff began, some drivers were asked who they thought would be the sport’s next multi-time champion, excluding themselves.

Johnson’s answer was quick.

“I would probably put Harvick first,’’ Johnson said in September. “Just the consistent nature that he and (crew chief) Rodney (Childers) and that No. 4 car has from track to track. If it’s a road course, short track, big track, superspeedway, those guys are just rock solid.

“They have had a challenging year this year switching manufacturers and they are still up there cranking out solid finishes week in and week out. I would start with Kevin and then I would probably put Brad (Keselowski) second.”

Keselowski, not able to select himself, offered a different pick.

“I would say that would be between Joey (Logano) and the two Kyles,’’ he said, referring to Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson.  “They’re really talented. They’re very young. They’ve got great rides. You’d be inclined to say that Kyle Busch would probably get there first because he has the best ride of the three, and he already has a championship, but who knows?’’

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who competed in the playoffs for the first time, offered his take:

“If I look really right now I would say Kevin or Kyle (Busch) would be that guy. They’ve already got one championship, and I feel like they’re in position that they could put themselves in that second championship category this year. 

“I think Truex has got the speed to do that over the next few years, if they can stay at that level and, really, I think Larson is capable of that as well if they’re able to stay at the level they’re at right now or push that level up a little higher. I think with Kyle and Kevin already having one, I think you’ve got to put those at the top of your list.”

The reason there is only one multi-time champion is because of the recent retirements of Tony Stewart (2016) and Jeff Gordon (2015). They combined to win seven titles. Johnson, Gordon and Stewart combined to win 14 of the last 22 championships (63.4 percent).

The other eight titles won during that stretch were by Terry Labonte (1996), Dale Jarrett (1999), Bobby Labonte (2000), Matt Kenseth (2003), Kurt Busch (2004), Keselowski (2012), Harvick (2014) and Kyle Busch (2015).

So, does having a title make one of those former champs the favorite this weekend?

“The pressure is really on (Truex) and (Kyle Busch),’’ Harvick said after Sunday’s race at Phoenix. “Those guys have dominated the year, and I feel like if they don’t win at this point, they would probably feel like they’ve had a letdown.’’

Truex’s response?

“That sounds like Harvick,’’ he said. “If I’m the favorite, perfect, I like that. I think it’s a better position to be in. I was the underdog before and I finished fourth, so yeah, bring it on.’’

GETTING OLDER

The average age of the four Cup title contenders 35.8 years old — two years older than last year.

Since the elimination format debuted in 2014, the 2015 field has the oldest average of 37.0. That championship race had Harvick, Truex, Kyle Busch and Gordon.

The youngest average age for the title contenders is 32.8 set in 2014 with Harvick, Logano, Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin.

NO CHEVROLET CUP TITLE, BUT …

Chevrolet has been shut out of the championship round in Cup with the four drivers split evenly between Toyota and Ford.

But Chevrolet is guaranteed to win the Xfinity title. All four drivers — Elliott Sadler, William Byron, Justin Allgaier and Daniel Hemric are with the car manufacturer.

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Here’s your Cup Round of 8 and Martinsville history primer

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Martinsville Speedway may be the smallest track on the NASCAR Cup circuit, but it’s one of the biggest and most important tracks in the Cup playoffs.

Sunday’s First Data 500 kicks off the Round of 8 semifinal round of the playoffs. Sunday’s race is followed by races at Texas Motor Speedway next week and Phoenix Raceway in two weeks.

Thanks to Racing Insights, here’s everything you need to know about NASCAR’s oldest track:

NASCAR Cup 2017 Season Breakdown:

  • Different Winners: 14.
  • Most Wins: 7 – Martin Truex Jr.
  • Most Poles: 8 – Kyle Busch.
  • Most Runner Ups: 8 – Kyle Larson.
  • Most Top-fives: 15 – Martin Truex Jr.
  • Most Top-10s: 22 – Marin Truex Jr.
  • Most Laps Led: 2068– Martin Truex Jr.
  • Stage Wins: 19 – Martin Truex Jr.
  • Stage Top-5s: 42 – Martin Truex Jr.
  • Stage Top-10s: 51 – Kyle Larson
  • Playoff Points: 69 – Martin Truex Jr.

2017 NASCAR Cup Season Highlights:

  • Joe Gibbs Racing (six), Furniture Row (five) and Chip Ganassi Racing (two) won 13 of the last 15 races.
  • The pole winner has won six times in 2017: Kyle Larson ACS, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Talladega-1, Kyle Larson MIS-1, Kyle Busch POC-2, Kyle Busch NH-2, Martin Truex Jr. KS-2.
  • The final lead change came in the last 10 laps in 17 of 32 races in 2017, the final three laps in 12 races and on the last lap in three races.
  • Either Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Busch have won a stage in 23 of 32 races in 2017.
  • Martin Truex Jr. has won at least one stage in 14 of 32 races in 2017 but has not won a stage in the last four races which is tied for his longest stretch of races without a stage win.
  • Martin Truex Jr. is the only driver to win both stage 1&2 and go on to win the race (Las Vegas, Kentucky).
  • Five drivers have won a race but have not won a stage in 2017.
  • Four drivers have won a stage but have not won a race in 2017.
  • Atlanta, Pocono-1, Michigan-2 and Chicagoland are the only races without a caution before the end of stage 1.
  • Atlanta, Michigan-2 and Chicagoland are the only races to not have a caution other than stage breaks in the first two stages of the race.
  • Three cautions at Watkins Glen are the fewest in a race in 2017.
  • 15 cautions at Kansas-1 and Dover-1 are the most in a race in 2017.
  • The last three races all had 10 or more cautions, there were less than 10 cautions per race in the prior nine races of 2017.
  • Three times a driver has won after going to the rear: Jimmie Johnson Texas-1 (unapproved tire change), Joey Logano Richmond-1 (transmission change), Jimmie Johnson Dover-1 (rear gear change).
  • Denny Hamlin won in New Hampshire-1 after going to a backup car prior to qualifying.
  • Three times in 2017 a driver has gone on to win after a speeding penalty: Kurt Busch Daytona-1, Brad Keselowski Martinsville-1 and Martin Truex Jr. Chicagoland.
  • Martin Truex Jr. won at Kansas after a restart violation on lap 36, it was the fourth time in 2017 a driver has recovered from a in race infraction to win and the second time by Martin Truex Jr.
  • Three drivers got their first career win in 2017: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Talladega-1, Austin Dillon Charlotte-1, Ryan Blaney Pocono-1, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the first first-time winner to get his second win in 2017.
  • There has been one track record set in 2017: Kyle Busch (Kentucky).
  • Three races were won with a last lap pass: Daytona-1 Kurt Busch passed Kyle Larson, Talladega-1 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. passed Kyle Busch, Talladega-2 Brad Keselowski passed Ryan Newman.
  • Three drivers ended the longest winless streaks of their career in 2017: Ryan Newman 127 races, Kasey Kahne 102 races, Kyle Busch 36 races.

Martinsville recent race history:

  • October 2016 ended a six race Martinsville winless streak for Johnson, tied for his longest drought at the track.
  • The last seven Martinsville races were won by seven different drivers, the previous 19 races were won by six different drivers.
  • In April Brad Keselowski became just the sixth first time Martinsville winner in the last 25 Martinsville races.
  • The race winner has started seventh or better in the last four Martinsville races.
  • Joe Gibbs Racing drivers were passed for the win in four of the last five Martinsville races, Kyle Busch was passed by Brad Keselowski with 43 laps to go in April.
  • The winner of five of the last eight Martinsville races got his only win of the season.
  • Only once in the last eight Martinsville races has the driver who led the most laps gone on to win (Kyle Busch in April 2016).
  • The Martinsville race winner led less than 100 laps in six of the last eight Martinsville races.
  • Since caution data has been available there has never been a Martinsville race that went caution free for the first 130 laps (length of stage 1.
  • Last October at Martinsville the final 114 laps went green, the longest green flag stretch to end a race at Martinsville in the last 54 races.
  • There were 14 cautions at Martinsville in April, more than both races at Martinsville in 2016 combined.
  • Although there were 14 cautions in April there was still a green flag stretch of 120 laps.
  • There have been five overtime finishes at Martinsville, the most recent was April 2012.
  • There was one last lap pass for the win at Martinsville, Darrell Waltrip passed Dale Earnhardt on lap 500 in September 1987 after Earnhardt and Terry Labonte made contact in turn three and Waltrip took the lead from third.
  • 12 Drivers got their first Cup win at Martinsville but only one has done so in the last 33 years, Ricky Craven in 2001.
  • 11 of the last 14 Martinsville races were won from a top-10 starting position.
  • Brad Keselowski won at Martinsville in April, Ford’s only Martinsville win in the last 29 races at the track before April they had not won at Martinsville since October 2002.
  • Chevrolet drivers won 10 of the last 13 Martinsville races, Chevrolet has not gone more than one Martinsville race without a win since 2010.
  • 28 of the last 29 Martinsville races were won by four organizations: Hendrick Motorsports (16 wins), Joe Gibbs Racing (7 wins), Stewart-Haas Racing (3 wins), Team Penske (2 wins) (RCR won the other race).
  • Hendrick Motorsports has 24 Martinsville wins, including the organization’s first win by Geoff Bodine in 1984, the most wins at a single track by an organization in Cup Series history.
  • Five different drivers won a race at Martinsville driving for Hendrick Motorsports, tied with Junior Johnson for the greatest number of different winners by an organization at Martinsville.
  • Jimmie Johnson won at Martinsville last October, it was his ninth win at the track again tying Jeff Gordon for third in Martinsville wins.
  • The all time Martinsville wins leader is Richard Petty with 15, Darrell Waltrip is second with 11, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are third with nine.

Martinsville Playoff Highlights:

  • Martinsville has been a playoff race in all 14 years of the playoffs.
  • 11 of the 13 playoff races held at Martinsville have been won by a playoff eligible driver.
  • Chevrolet has won 11 of the 13 playoff races held at Martinsville including the last six straight.
  • Hendrick Motorsports drivers won the last five playoff races at Martinsville.
  • Ford has never won a playoff race at Martinsville.
  • Jimmie Johnson has won six of the playoff races held at Martinsville, the most of all drivers.
  • Johnsons six Martinsville playoff race wins are the most by a driver at a track.
  • Only five drivers won the 13 Playoff Races at Martinsville: Jimmie Johnson (6 wins), Jeff Gordon (3 wins), Denny Hamlin (2 wins), Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1 win each).
  • Three organizations have won the 13 playoff races at Martinsville: Hendrick Motorsports (10 wins), Joe Gibbs Racing (2 wins), Stewart-Haas Racing (1 win).
  • In the three years of the elimination format (since 2014), Jimmie Johnson in 2016 is the only driver to win at Martinsville and go on to win the championship.
  • Five cautions in the 2016 Martinsville playoff race, the fewest in the 13 playoff races at the track and the only race with less than 11 cautions.
  • There was a caution in the first 50 laps in all 13 playoff races at Martinsville Short Track Highlights.

Short Track Highlights:

  • Jimmie Johnson’s 14 short track wins are the most of all active drivers, Kyle Busch ranks second with 11.
  • Five different drivers won the five short track races in 2017, the last time six different drivers won the six short track races in a year was 2013.
  • Three drivers finished in the top-10 in four of five short track races in 2017: Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.
  • Six drivers led 84% (1,937 of 2,304) of the laps raced on short tracks in 2017: Kyle Busch (469), Martin Truex Jr. (356), Kyle Larson (353), Matt Kenseth (264), Erik Jones (260) and Brad Keselowski (235).
  • Joey Logano has an average finish of 5.0 on short tracks in 2017 the best of all drivers and is the only driver to finish in the top-five in four of the five races on short tracks this season.
  • Six drivers finished on the lead lap in all five short track races in 2017: Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
  • Six different drivers won a stage on a short track in 2017, Martin Truex Jr.’s three stage wins on short tracks are the most.
  • Kyle Larson’s 61 stage points on short tracks are the most of all drivers.

Martinsville Track History and Fast Facts: 

  • Henry Clay Earles was the owner of The Spot service station and several houses in Martinsville. After attending a few races in 1947 with his friend Sam Rice, the budding entrepreneur thought that racing would be a profitable business. With partner’s Sam Rice and Henry Lawrence, a site for a racetrack was located at an overgrown 30 acre cornfield just outside Martinsville. The track was soon underway and ended up costing $60,000. The first race was for modified stock cars on September 7, 1947 (pre-NASCAR). William H. G. France had persuaded Earles that stock cars were the future of racing and he helped to promote the event for a percentage. The total purse was $2,000. Only 750 of the planned 5,000 seats were ready and parking capacity was 1,400 cars. The crowd was overwhelming. Earles said that nearly 10,000 fans attended, 3,000 unpaid. Red Byron won the race and $500.
  • The first NASCAR sanctioned race was for Modified stock cars won by Fonty Flock on July 4, 1948. The eighth place finisher was Bill France.
  • The first NASCAR Cup (Grand National) race on September 25th, 1949, won by Red Byron over Lee Petty. Byron drove the No. 22 Raymond Parks owned Oldsmobile led by crew chief Red Vogt, the race consisted of a 15 car field.
  • The track surface was dirt for the first 12 Cup races.
  • In 1964 Earles decided it was time for a different type of trophy for race winners. His choice was a grandfather clock produced by nearby Ridgeway Clock Company. On September 27, 1964, Earles awarded the first Clock trophy to Fred Lorenzen, the winner of the Old Dominion 500 that afternoon.
  • Richard Petty has the most clocks with 12 (he won three times at Martinsville prior to the introduction of the clock. Darrell Waltrip won 11 Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson each have 9 clocks.
  • In 1976 the corners were resurfaced in concrete. The track was completely resurfaced following the spring 2004 race when Jeff Gordon ran over a chunk of concrete that had come loose in turn 3.
  • International Speedway Corporation (ISC) purchased privately owned Martinsville Speedway in 2004 for $192 million.
  • Starting in March of 2015 the Iconic Martinsville Hot Dog has been provided by Valleydale Hot Dogs, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. Valleydale provides a dog that closely resembles the Jesse Jones Southern Style hot dog in taste and color and will continue to cost $2. The change ended a relationship with Jesse Jones that dated back to 1947. South Boston Speedway and Ace Speedway in Altamahaw, N.C. continue to sell Jesse Jones dogs.
  • On October 12, 2016 Martinsville track president Clay Campbell announced that the track would have an LED lighting system in place for the 2017 season, which would coincide with Martinsville’s 70th anniversary. The project cost an estimated $5 million and is described as more of an “insurance policy” against late after noon finishes like the one in October 2015. No night races are scheduled for 2017 at Martinsville.
  • Martinsville has become the 15th of 23 tracks on the Cup circuit with permanent lights in place. The only tracks that now remain without lights: Dover, Indy, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pocono, Sonoma, Talladega and Watkins Glen.
  • October 29th will be the 138th race at Martinsville, every season since 1949 and multiple races a year every year since 1950.
  • Martinsville is the only track to host a race in every season of NASCAR’s existence, and is the only remaining active “Charter Track” on the schedule.
  • At 0.526 miles in length Martinsville is the shortest track on the Cup schedule.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s dramatic ride doesn’t end in victory, but he walked away

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TALLADEGA, Alabama — After driving through multiple wrecks, skidding through the grass, and charging through the field, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was left with the satisfaction he walked out of Talladega Superspeedway unharmed in a race that saw three red flags and 24 of the 40 cars eliminated because of accidents.

Earnhardt, who has a history of concussions and missed half of last season because of concussion symptoms, admitted that beneath his excitement of being at this track, he had concerns entering Sunday’s race — his final restrictor-plate Cup race.

“This was one I was worried about, in the back of my mind I was a little concerned,’’ said Earnhardt, who finished seventh after starting on the pole. “You can’t win the race if you race scared. I’ve raced scared here before and you don’t do well when that happens, so you have to block it out and take the risks and hope it’s not your day to get in one of those accidents and it wasn’t.’’

Earnhardt did take many risks during the race.

I think that anyone who questions our desire to be here and compete this year and our desire to run hard and face can look at the risks that we took this afternoon, knowing that any of those crashes would have probably given me a bit of an injury that would have held me out of the rest of the season,’’ he said.

Earnhardt avoided several accidents on the way to scoring his second top-10 finish in the last 15 races. After exiting his car, he had blades of grass and dirt on the back of his uniform from one of his excursions to avoid an accident.

“Just got lucky on those wrecks,’’ Earnhardt said. “Ain’t nothing I’m doing. I’m just not getting hit … and not losing control of my car. Just really luck.’’

The last incident, though, damaged Earnhardt’s right front and knocked the splitter down, all but ending his hopes of winning before the final three laps.

“When we got going on that last restart, it just wouldn’t go in the corners especially,’’ Earnhardt said. “Everybody around us was just wasting their time pushing us and they sort figured it it out after a lap of two and decided to leave us alone.

“I thought the car had enough to win before we bent the splitter down.’’

Winner Brad Keselowski didn’t know about Earnhardt’s damage, so when he had Earnhardt behind him on the final restart, he felt he was in the best position.

“I thought when I had Dale Jr. lined up behind me, with the strength of his car and his ability, that we would just take off on the restart and clear them and it would be us racing for the win,’’ Keselowski told NBC Sports. “We came off of Turn 2 and didn’t really have a lot of momentum and the outside lane passed us and the next thing you knew we were running third with only two laps left to get to the lead.’’

Even though Earnhardt didn’t challenge for the win at the end, he will end his career as one of NASCAR’s most successful restrictor-plate drivers. His six wins at Talladega tie him with Jeff Gordon and ranks second only behind his father. Earnhardt finishes his Cup career with 10 restrictor-plate victories, including two Daytona 500 triumphs.

“Anytime anybody says you’re the best at anything it’s an awesome feeling,’’ Earnhardt said. “I can’t deny that it feels awesome to hear that, that people consider you good at anything. I knew that I wasn’t going to win 200 races and seven championships and do all those great things. I just wanted to come in here and be considered talented.

“To be great at anything was beyond my imagination. I appreciate people’s compliments on my plate driving and the success we’ve had at all the plate races.’’

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Long: Today marks one last time for Dale Earnhardt Jr., fans at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Alabama — They fell asleep embraced by the lingering aroma from their campfire. A day of relaxing and partying stretched into the night, and it was time for a few hours of respite before the new day, one some had awaited months to arrive.

Buoyed by his pole-winning effort Saturday, many in the Talladega Superspeedway campgrounds are filled with hope that Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins today in his final Cup race at a track as synonymous with the Earnhardt family as any on the NASCAR circuit.

Hope is a powerful thing. While it cannot make an engine turn more RPMs or the air glide over a car in the most efficient manner, it has led many to Talladega on a pilgrimage to see Earnhardt lead the field one more time.

It already has been a memorable couple of days for Earnhardt. On Friday, the track gave him the car his father raced in 1979 and 1980 (clinching the first of his seven titles in that car in ’80). A day later, Earnhardt won his first career Talladega pole.

Along with the buildup to today’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBC) has come the chance for reflection for Earnhardt.

“The end of the season is coming really fast,’’ Earnhardt said Saturday. “I didn’t really feel much emotion about that and the finality of it until maybe this weekend.

“These few weeks will go by so fast, and that’s it. There’s no reliving it. So, I think I’m starting to take it in just a little bit in letting myself feeling some emotion about it.’’

Earnhardt has had the chance to reflect because of the weekend’s gradual pace. This is typical Talladega. Most of the energy and nearly all the anxiety are packed into race day.

Earnhardt noted there was no fretting about pulling speed from the car because what teams have when they unload is about all they’re going to have at a restrictor-plate track, unlike other tracks where teams can make many more adjustments.

If you’re slow this weekend, there’s resignation. If you’re fast, there’s a comfort.

That’s allowed Earnhardt to ponder a career coming to a close and one last run at a track that has provided so many memorable moments.

It was at this track where his father went from 16th to first in the final five laps in 2000 to win what would be his final Cup race. Years later, Earnhardt watched a video of those final laps. When his father rocketed off Turn 2 and passed six cars on the way into Turn 3, beginning his charge to victory, a smile formed on Earnhardt’s face and widened with each car his father dispatched. “Man’’ was all Earnhardt could say, pride and wonderment spilling out in one syllable.

It also was here where Earnhardt won in the fall of 2001. That victory was important to him because of questions he faced about his win at Daytona in July, the first race there since his father’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt stated Friday that Jimmy Spencer’s comments questioning the legitimacy of that victory still upset him and how his success after that event proved his win was legit.

That Talladega win also was the first of four in a row at this track.

“We got pretty cocky there at some points in the mid-2000s with our performance and ability,’’ Earnhardt said.

Then the performance went away and Earnhardt struggled, winning twice in the series between 2007-13.

This also is the track that has frustrated him. NASCAR ruled Jeff Gordon was leading, not Earnhardt, when the caution came out and the spring 2004 race did not restart, allowing Gordon to win. Fans littered the track with beer cans at NASCAR’s decision.

It also was here where Earnhardt was collected in a last-lap crash that, along with a crash about six weeks earlier, created concussion symptoms that forced him to miss two races in 2012.

But even with those events, most of the memories Earnhardt has of this track and its fans are good. When he takes the lead, the roar of the crowd can be heard over the cars.

Nothing sounded better to him Friday than the rumble from the engine of his father’s 1979 blue-and-yellow Monte Carlo the track gave him. He drove a couple of laps around the track in the No. 2 car.

Then, so proud of the car, he drove it to the Cup garage so his crew could see it before returning to pit road.

The gift was something his father had touched and him. It connected Earnhardt to his childhood days. After the car was retired, it sat on jackstands outside the shop of what was his father’s Busch team.

“I remember he right-sided the car at some point in the race, and you could go over and pick the bondo out of the whole side of the car… all busted the cracked up,’’ Earnhardt said. “So that car sat there for about three or four years in the backyard at Mamaw’s house.

“When Dad wasn’t at the race weekends, on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday he was at that shop. He drove there every morning and drove home every day. That’s where he went every day. So I’d go over there and climb in and around that car at some point every single time I went there. You couldn’t not go near it.’’

After it was restored, his father sent it to be displayed at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame next to Talladega Superspeedway. As a youngster, Earnhardt and other sons of racers would go to the Hall and admire the car.

Now Earnhardt will have it, a time warp to the past to when his father was starting his championship run in NASCAR. It also signifies how much time has passed and a reminder that the end of Earnhardt’s Cup career is only days way — 35 to be exact.

While he isn’t going away — he’ll race at least once next year in the Xfinity Series and likely more — today will be his final restrictor-plate race, the type of racing that has helped define both he and his father.

Today fans will have one final time to cheer Earnhardt at Talladega.

After winning the pole Saturday, he was shown a video of the crowd roaring once he crossed the finish line and his No. 88 shot to the top spot on the scoring tower.

He smiled.

“That’s pretty cool,’’ he said.

Imagine what it will be like if he wins today.

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Chase Elliott has one goal for Talladega: ‘Keep all four (tires) on the ground’

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MARTINSVILLE, Virginia — Kyle Larson relates to what Chase Elliott is going through with so many runner-up finishes while seeking his first career Cup win. Larson also knows what is likely in Elliott’s future.

“He will win,’’ Larson said after Elliott finished second last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “When he wins one, he is going to win a lot, similar to kind of what I did this year.’’

After scoring four runner-up finishes in his first 99 Cup starts, Larson won at Michigan in August 2016, triggering a run that has seen Larson become one of the sport’s dominant drivers. In the 41 starts since, Larson won four times, scored 10 runner-up finishes and had 19 top-five results.

Elliott already has six runner-up finishes in 71 career Cup starts, including three in the opening four playoff races. A win in the next two weeks would advance him to the Round of 8 and move him closer to his first Cup title.
“I certainly appreciate the kind words,’’ Elliott said of Larson’s comments. “We’ve been able to start the playoffs strong. It’s been refreshing to come to the track and have the kind of runs that we’ve been having and to come down pit road and have the stops that we’re having. We just have to make sure we carry that stuff forward. We have all the ingredients to do so.’’

Elliott said there’s not been one major change that has led to his team’s turnaround — he has not finished worse than 11th in the last six races — but notes that his cars and pit crew have improved and that’s played a key role.

“A big thing is coming down pit road and having some really good pit stops,’’ Elliott said during a break in testing Tuesday at Martinsville Speedway. “It’s hard to put a price tag on that. Our guys are doing their homework, they’re doing their jobs.

“When you can have your car balanced well … you’re going to get to a point where it is going to be harder and harder to pass guys. When you come down pit road and have solid pit stops, hopefully gain a spot or two here or there throughout a day, we’ve been able to stay in front of some of those guys that we jumped. That is really the kind of things you have to do to have success.’’

Elliott’s runner-up finish at Charlotte puts him 16 points ahead of the first car outside of a transfer spot to the next round, but Elliott is not conformable with that advantage heading into the unknown that is Talladega.

(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

In May’s race at Talladega, Elliott was turned by AJ Allmendinger and got on his side down the backstretch while Allmendinger ended up sliding on his roof in a crash that damaged 18 of the 40 cars.

“You go cross your fingers,’’ Elliott said of Sunday’s race. “The stage points are very valuable, and I think everybody knows that. So everybody is going to want to go and get stage points. There’s also a price tag with wrecking that early in the race. Hopefully, we’re not in it and we can get out of there and just keep all four on the ground this time, I’d be happy.’’

As for Tuesday, Elliott was taking part in an organizational test at Martinsville Speedway. The test continues Wednesday. Other playoff drivers taking part in the test include Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson. Also testing were Austin and Ty Dillon and Landon Cassill (Ford), Alex Bowman (Chevrolet) and Drew Herring (Toyota ).

“Just trying to find some consistency and what I’m doing behind the wheel and really some of the things I did here in the spring, I thought was my best race here,’’ said Elliott, who finished third in the spring race and had nine-time Martinsville winner Jeff Gordon at the test Tuesday helping him. “Trying to find that rhythm.’’

If he advances through this round, the Oct. 29 Cup race at Martinsville could be the one that helps him advance to the championship finale next month in Miami.

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