Matt Crafton filling in for ailing Aric Almirola in No. 43 Sprint Cup car today

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Richard Petty Motorsports announced that Matt Crafton will replace Aric Almirola today in practice at Michigan International Speedway because Almirola is ill.

The team stated that Almirola will make limited laps in practice in order to qualify the car and retain his starting spot for Sunday’s race. Almirola got into the car late in Friday’s practice session.

Crafton, a two-time Camping World Truck Series champion, is there because the series races at Michigan this weekend.

Although Crafton drives for Toyota and Almirola’s RPM team is aligned with Ford, Crafton is in the car because Ford did not have any Truck series drivers at Michigan with Cup experience other than Ryan Blaney and he’s already in the No. 21 Cup car this weekend doing double duty. The Xfinity Series is racing at Mid-Ohio this weekend.

Almirola enters this weekend 50 points out of the final Chase spot with four races to go.

 

 

 

Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski duel adds spice to playoffs

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RICHMOND, Va. — Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski were together again, racing side-by-side, nose-to-tail, as they raced for the lead Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

It was a juicy moment between the two combatants, known as much for their volatile relationship on and off the track as their racing acumen. Crew chief Adam Stevens said watching the two battle Saturday was “a little bit nerve-racking” as he sat atop Busch’s pit box.

“You know, they’re not going to give each other too much room,” Stevens said.

Keselowski led with 50 laps to go when Busch closed. Over the next 15 laps around Richmond Raceway, they dueled, diced and delivered tight racing before Busch got by and pulled away to win, while Keselowski fell back and finished ninth to see his three-race winning streak end.

That Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. finished 1-2-3 Saturday — marking the return of the Big 3 to dominance — will overshadow the racing between Busch and Keselowski on this night. But their battle could serve as a prelude for these playoffs, which is in search of an identity after two races.

Busch and Keselowski have spiced the playoffs before. During last year’s championship finale press conference, Busch said of Keselowski: “Sometimes you just don’t like a guy.” The comment was made with Keselowski sitting just a few feet away.

Busch’s frustrations come from the numerous incidents he’s had with Keselowski that date back nearly a decade. Saturday night, it appeared as if the two would add another chapter to their history.

“There were a couple of times where I was to his inside and whether I was being held a little tight or sliding up … we were getting kind of close,” Busch said after his 50th career Cup victory. “In those moments, you kind of tense up and the car slides and any time the car slides you know you’re putting heat in the tires and you’re putting heat into everything.

“You try to take a step back and kind of regroup, let everything cool down again and go re-attack. I was able to do that about twice. Second time it finally paid off when he was starting to drop.”

Keselowski said he had a better car on short runs. Having won last week at Las Vegas to advance to the next round, Keselowski could be aggressive as he tried to hold off Busch.

“We were so good on the short runs and nothing was working on the long runs,” Keselowski said. “I could try to save the tires and fall back to fourth or I could try to run up front and win the race, and I went real hard and did all I could to hold him off but didn’t have enough.’’

After Busch got by, he stuck his hand out the window. Keselowski was asked afterward what he thought Busch meant.

“I don’t try to read his mind,” Keselowski said. “That’s the last place I need to be.”

Busch explained his hand signal: “When you spend 15, 20 laps trying to pass the guy and you pass him and you get run into right as soon as you pass him, it’s kind of like, ‘Come on, man, really?’ But oh, well.”

Busch could brush it off since he won and won’t have to worry about what happens next weekend at the Charlotte Roval, which will cut the playoff field from 16 to 12. 

“If we would have had trouble again tonight and been kind of at the cutoff line, then obviously it would make for a very, very stressful week and a stressful Roval,” Busch said. “But right now it feels pretty good. So we can go in there with no worries and try to go and attack that place and see what we can get out of there.”

Same for Keselowski.

Denny Hamlin on another mediocre finish: ‘We were just bad all day’

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RICHMOND, Va. — There’s a good chance that Denny Hamlin will fail to advance from the first round of the playoffs for the first time in his career.

And that might be the least of the Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s concerns now.

“I’m not worried about the playoffs,” Hamlin said after finishing 16th at Richmond Raceway. “I’m just worried about running better. With our teammate winning, and us running like a bag of shit, it’s just disappointing every week. We were just bad all day.”

After qualifying second, Hamlin was forced to make a green-flag pit stop on Lap 55 after nearly spinning from contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. He rebounded quickly by unlapping himself after only 27 laps, gaining two points with a ninth in Stage 1.

But that would be the highlight at the hometown track for the Chesterfield, Va., native, who struggled in traffic for the rest of the 400-lap race that was won by teammate Kyle Busch.

In six of the past eight races, Hamlin has qualified in the top three. His best finish in those races is eighth, and he’s placed outside the top 10 in the past three.

“It just seems like once we get in race trim, I can’t get the car to do anything that it’s supposed to do,” he said. “I can make it go fast for a lap in qualifying, just not do the things that it’s supposed to do around the racetrack. And the things that I watch (Busch) doing successfully. It’s just really disappointing.

“I thought after practice we’d be quite a bit better, but as soon as we dropped the green, the car just didn’t have a good feel to it. I knew we were in trouble the first 10 laps.”

After opening the playoffs with a 32nd at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Hamlin is ranked last among the 16 playoff drivers heading into the Sept. 30 cutoff race, which will mark the Cup debut for Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course.  The No. 11 Toyota trails the 12th and final provisional spot by 29 points.

“We probably need to go there and win,” he said.

Pit problems once again derail Martin Truex Jr. at Richmond

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Martin Truex Jr. can’t catch a break in Richmond, Virginia.

Saturday night, for the fourth time in the last five races at Richmond Raceway, the defending series champion led the most laps.

Each time Truex has not ended up in Victory Lane.

Truex finished third Saturday after he and the No. 78 Toyota led 163 laps and won the first two stages.

His bid to win the first short-track race of his Cup career more or less ended in the pits during the Stage 2 caution. That’s when his team was called for an uncontrolled tire penalty, forcing Truex to restart 19th.

In the April 21 race at Richmond, Truex led 121 laps from the pole but finished 14th after a slow pit stop with 10 laps to go.

“It was really good all day,” Truex said. “Just man, I don’t know what we’ve got to do to win this race. We’ve probably led more than anyone here ever that’s not won it. It’s crazy, but it wasn’t meant to be tonight. Hell of an effort by the guys and good recovery by the guys on pit road. Thanks to all you guys back in Denver (Furniture Row Racing’s headquarters) working your butts off to bring these fast cars and just keep digging and we’re moving on. So, that’s the name of the game and hopefully we’ll get the win when we really need it.”

Truex has led 675 laps over the last five Richmond races but hasn’t finished in the top two in any of them.

Despite the penalty, Truex’s earned enough points to clinch a spot in the second round of the playoffs.

Following the race, Truex’s crew chief Cole Pearn tweeted his frustration over the penalty that kept his team from earning its fifth win of the season.

What drivers said after Richmond

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Kyle Busch — Winner: “Yeah, I’m not going to qualify here anymore (laughter). It’s a waste of time for us. I don’t know why, I just can not qualify here, but we’ve got a really good race car when it comes down time to have a race and especially the later it gets. (Kevin) Harvick was getting me a little bit there at the end, but I think I was running myself pretty hard with Brad (Keselowski) a little bit earlier than that so I think he had a little bit more than I had there later in the game. This M&M’s Toyota Camry was awesome tonight. I can’t thank (crew chief) Adam Stevens and all my guys enough. Great job at working on this thing and getting it put back together today and being able to get it ready for tonight to be a great race car. Also want to thank Rowdy Nation. It’s awesome to come out here. I saw a lot of 18 gear here this weekend so really fun to see that and be able to put on a good show coming from the back all the way up to the front and being able to win for all those guys.”

Kevin Harvick — Finished second: “We were starting to track (Kyle Busch) down there at the end. I needed about 25 more laps. I gotta thank everybody on our Jimmy John’s Ford. They did a great job on a weekend when we needed to do a great job with all the unknowns going into next week. It will be a fun weekend but it will be kind of trial and error as we go through the weekend. It was a good night for us here at Richmond and we did a good job on pit road, just came up a little bit short.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished third: “Another pit stop maybe. We used it up there at the end trying to get — I think we restarted eighth on the outside and to get back to third we were kind of used up at the end. But, man, what an awesome race car the guys brought here. The Auto Owners Toyota was fast. It was really good all day. Just man, I don’t know what we’ve got to do to win this race. We’ve probably led more than anyone here ever that’s not won it. It’s crazy, but it wasn’t meant to be tonight. Hell of an effort by the guys and good recovery by the guys on pit road. Thanks to all you guys back in Denver working your butts off to bring these fast cars and just keep digging and we’re moving on. So, that’s the name of the game, and hopefully, we’ll get the win when we really need it.”

Chase Elliott — Finished fourth: Yeah, just appreciate Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) making some good calls overnight.  I feel like we changed about everything before qualifying yesterday.  Typically, that does not work, so, just appreciate everybody’s efforts on my Hooters team to do that and put enough thought process and care into it to want to get better and for those guys to do what they did and make our car drive like it did tonight was really impressive.  We had probably one of the worst practice days I’ve ever had throughout the season.  We are in a position where we have got to run like that to get through.”

Aric Almirola — Finished fifth: “I just couldn’t quite get it to turn the way I needed to to make pace with those guys in front of me. I am so proud of these guys on the Smithfield team. Our Ford Fusion was fast. We had a good night. We executed and ran top-five all night. That is the exact night we were looking for to build a little bit of a point cushion going into the Roval next week where we are all unsure of what we will have. I am really proud of the night and we will see what happens next week.”

Austin Dillon — Finished sixth: “That’s what we needed. I hate that we could have had stage points in the first stage if we would have qualified better. If we would have qualified better, we probably wouldn’t have had the car we had tonight. Impound, we knew we were going to have to bite the bullet in qualifying to have a car free enough to race good. We were just super-loose in qualifying. That was a long night to sleep on that. But to wake up we had confidence in the Dow Vorasurf Chevy and that was a heck of a run for us. We’ve done all we could in these playoffs, so I’m really proud right now. I hope all the studying I’ve done for the Roval will pay off also. We don’t want to be the first group out.”

Jimmie Johnson — Finished eighth: “The track bar adjustments weren’t working, so I was really limited on the adjustments in the car; especially here. You need to have the track bar so high to get started and then lower it in the course of a run. I just had to deal with it. I think we could have been better, but it was a nice top 10 finish. Hopefully we can go to the Roval and have a great day. Richmond is not our best track. And to get a top 10 is a respectable run for us. I think we could have been at least inside the top five. I think we came close to maximizing what we had in it. So, I feel good about that. We came from the back two or three different times for different reasons and had a good finish out of it.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished ninth: “We had a lot of short-run speed, and I knew that was our chance to win the race there, and we ran it pretty hard, and it didn’t quite work out. We didn’t quite catch the breaks we needed there. Burned off the rear tires. We ran good but we still have some things to work on.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 10th: “That’s one of the hardest top 10s we’ve ever had to work for. We were loose in and off the corner all night, and we threw a bunch of changes at it to try and get it right. We made some headway with it and salvaged an OK finish, but OK doesn’t cut it in the playoffs.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 12th: “We probably took a sixth-place car and ran 12th with it. So it’s a little frustrating. We just had to go a direction for the shorter run there at the end because it took probably 35 or 40 laps for our car to come in the previous couple of runs. And it just didn’t work. So, we tried something and learned from it and we’ll move on.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 13th: “We struggled the first couple of runs. (Crew chief) Brian Pattie made some great strategy calls that kept us in the ballgame. Our main focus is to finish the season strong and learn for next year.”

Joey Logano — Finished 14th: “We just were a little bit too loose most of the race and then we had a mistake on pit road that cost us probably six or seven spots. That is just the things that you can’t have during the playoffs but we will work through them. We are still in an okay spot. We are not in a good enough spot to not be concerned about next week totally but it does put us in a decent position.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 16th: “We probably need to go (to Charlotte) and win. I’m not worried about the playoffs. I’m just worried about running better. With our teammate winning, and us running like a bag of shit, it’s just disappointing every week. We were just bad all day. It just seems like once we get in race trim, I can’t get the car to do anything that it’s supposed to do. I can make it go fast for a lap in qualifying, just not do the things that it’s supposed to do around the racetrack. And the things that I watch (Kyle Busch) doing successfully. It’s just really disappointing. I thought after practice we’d be quite a bit better, but as soon as we dropped the green, the car just didn’t have a good feel to it. I knew we were in trouble the first 10 laps.”

William Byron — Finished 20th: “The guys did a good job on pit road and I felt like it was a pretty straightforward race.  A lot of green flag runs, which I thought was going to be a strong suit, but just kind of ran where we ran.  So, go back and work on it a little bit.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 28th: “Richmond Raceway is a really good track for me. I’ve always enjoyed coming here. We tested the track a couple months back and were really happy with the results. Our GEICO Camaro ZL1 had speed in both practice sessions. We just struggled through the corners during the race under the lights. I was too tight through the middle, but I would lose grip when my team made adjustments to loosen me up. It was a tough balance to get a handle on. But, I never gave up on my team and they didn’t give up on me. Tonight was definitely a battle for us, but we’re going to keep moving forward to finish the season strong.”