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Hardest part of the K&N East season comes Saturday for Justin Haley

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Last December Justin Haley sat in the back of the room at the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East banquet with what he cracked was his “participation trophy” for finishing sixth in points.

Haley watched as William Byron enjoyed all the perks of being the champion. Then he turned to his family.

“I said, ‘You know, that’d be cool to be up there,’ and they told me we’d get it this year,” Haley told NBC Sports during a champion’s outing at GoPro Motorplex on Thursday. “I guess I get to experience it now and see what it’s like.”

Haley will be formally honored Saturday at the NASCAR Night of Champions Touring Awards. He’s looking forward to going from the back of the room to the spotlight at the front. It will be a nice feeling to be recognized and know his face will be the one on the screen all those in attendance will be looking at.

There’s just one thing about Saturday night Haley is not looking forward.

“The speech is low on my list,” he said with a laugh.

Speaking in front of the room filled with champions and competitors from the NASCAR K&N West Series, Pinty’s Series, Whelen Euro Series, as well as the Whelen Modified and Southern Modified Tour, might be the only thing that trips Haley up this season.

He made winning his first championship look easy with 14 top-10 finishes in 14 races. He finished no worse than ninth in those 14 races and had two victories and three poles. His average finish was 3.4.

It’s worth noting that 2016 was just his second full-time season and he entered it still looking for his first career win. Haley lets out a laugh of disbelief when talking about his statistics.

“We had 14 races and 13 top fives, which was incredible,” Haley said. “The other race we finished ninth in, which we were running third at Mobile (International Speedway) and it was my fault because I jumped a restart, so we should have 14 top fives. But it’s incredible because it goes to show HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks gave me a fast car but also a reliable car.”

There was also the luck factor, Haley admitted. His No. 5 Chevrolet wasn’t one to find trouble through cut tires or mechanical failures. He also led a total of 216 laps on the year.

“We had tons of luck on our side, which is great,” Haley said. “A season like that doesn’t come often. But I was just super thankful when I saw (my numbers) and just to have all that luck – it was really a season that you don’t come by very often, and I was lucky to just put my name on the map a little bit more.”

Since winning the championship at Dover International Speedway on Sept. 30, Haley has enjoyed all the obligations that come with his accomplishment, as well as the various Twitter notifications, which he called “pretty exciting.” The night prior the karting outing at GoPro Motorplex, Haley and his fellow Touring and Weekly Series champions were welcomed to the NASCAR Hall of Fame where they had dinner and placed their names in the Whelen Hall of Champions.

Haley also recently celebrated in the Bahamas by going on a cruise with his team. Each experience has been thrilling for the 17-year-old. But it all leads to the hardest part yet.

“It’s been done for a while,” Haley said of his banquet speech. “We’ll practice it a few more times. It’s definitely going to be – we’ll see how many times I can stumble.”

Cup starting lineup at New Hampshire has Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch on front row

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Rivals Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch will share the front row for Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Keselowski won his 15th career pole – and first since August 2017 – on Friday. He will have Busch start next to him.

MORE: Cup starting lineup

The rivals have had numerous run-ins throughout the their career.

Kurt Busch, who won last weekend at Kentucky, qualified third and is followed by Erik Jones and Ryan Blaney.

Three drivers will start at the rear: Denny Hamlin (backup), Alex Bowman (backup) and Ryan Newman (backup).

Brad Keselowski wins Cup pole at New Hampshire

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Brad Keselowski scored his first Cup pole since 2017, taking the top spot Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Keselowski topped the field with a lap of 136.384 mph. This is Keselowski’s 15th career Cup pole and first since Michigan in August 2017, a span of 68 races.

Keselowski’s run denied Toyota its first pole of the season. Keselowski will be joined on the front row by Kyle Busch (136.311 mph).

MORE: Cup qualifying results

Kurt Busch, who won last weekend at Kentucky, will start third after a lap of 136.238 mph. Erik Jones qualified fourth with a lap of 136.189 mph.

Jones’ performance is part of a promising week for him. He stated Friday that he is “close” to signing an extension with Joe Gibbs Racing. Jones’ contract expires after this season.

Ryan Blaney completed the top five with a lap of 136.116 mph. Martin Truex Jr. qualified sixth at 136.082 mph, and Matt DiBenedetto qualified a career-best seventh at 135.990 mph. DiBenedetto’s previous best Cup start was ninth in this year’s Daytona 500.

Alex Bowman had a driveshaft failure on his qualifying run and did not complete a lap. He will start at the rear of the field.

“Just a big boom going down the front straightaway and smoke and oil everywhere,” Bowman told NBCSN.

Bowman will go to a backup car.

Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman also will start at the rear of the field because they both went to backup cars after separate incidents late in Friday’s only Cup practice session.

Andy Seuss (qualified 35th) and Austin Theriault (36th) both will be making their Cup debut Sunday.

Daniel Hemric qualified 19th. HIs car failed inspection twice before qualifying and a crew member was ejected.

 

Erik Jones ‘close’ to re-signing after meeting with Joe Gibbs this week

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LOUDON, N.H. – After meeting with team owner Joe Gibbs this week, Erik Jones believes he finally is “close” to signing an extension with the team after a few months of negotiations.

“We’ve had some good meetings, positive meetings, so we’re moving in the right direction,” Jones said during Friday afternoon’s qualifying session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “I’d love to get it done here soon. We’ve had good meetings between my guys and JGR. I’ve had good meetings with Coach talking about it and moving forward. I know I keep saying it, but I feel like we’re pretty close to getting it done.”

The uncertainty for the 2020 season seemingly has been no distraction in 2019 for Jones, who believes he is close to ending a yearlong winless streak. He has notched six top 10s in the past nine races to move into the 16th and final provisional spot for the playoffs with seven races remaining in the regular season.

The Byron, Michigan, native said he told Gibbs “I want to get (the extension) done. We both want to get it done and move forward and stop worrying about it and stop focusing on it, but we’re close. Hopefully here soon.”

An extension for Jones would mean JGR has a full lineup of four drivers signed for 2020 and shift the focus to what is next for Xfinity driver Christopher Bell, who is under contract to JGR next season.

“I think you know as much as I do,” Bell said Friday morning when asked about what series he will race next year. “Actually, you probably know a little bit more than I do. Ultimately, it’s not up to me. I can’t make the decisions, so I’m just along for the ride.”

Bell indicated his desire to move to Cup last season, and a Leavine Family Racing Toyota could be an option if JGR wants to farm him out for 2020 in NASCAR’s premier series.

“I learned early on in my career that a race car driver is only as good as the equipment,” Bell said. “I definitely want to make sure that I’m in equipment that can win.”

Jeffrey Earnhardt releases his remaining races for 2019

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Jeffrey Earnhardt announced his schedule for the rest of the season Friday.

He is scheduled to run six Xfinity races and one Cup race the rest of this season.

His Xfinity races will be Mid-Ohio (Aug. 10), Bristol (Aug. 16), Road America (Aug. 24), Darlington (Aug. 31), ISM Raceway (Nov. 9) and Miami (Nov. 16). He’ll drive the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Xfinity car at Mid-Ohio, Road America, ISM Raceway and Miami. He’ll drive the No. 81 Xtreme Concepts Racing car at Bristol and Darlington.

He’ll also drive the No. 81 Xtreme Concepts Racing Cup car at Talladega on Oct. 13.