What Drivers Said after Kansas Cup race

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Here is what drivers were saying after Saturday night’s NASCAR Cup race at Kansas Speedway:

Martin Truex Jr. — Winner: “That kid (Ryan Blaney) is good, man. He’s going to win a ton of races. He’s really talented and their cars are fast right now. You do 10 restarts, eight of them you get right, two of them you screw up. You just hope the ones you screw up aren’t for the win. Today, we were able to get those ones right when it mattered. You know what can I say, just an awesome team effort.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 2nd: “We caught a couple breaks there on those restarts and made the most of them. That was good. We had a really great Freightliner Elite Support Ford, just kept getting caught in adversity there. We worked our way through it. It stinks we finished second and still lost points because we didn’t get those stage points. All in all, we had a really fast Ford and have a lot to be proud of. We will move on to the next week.”

Kevin Harvick — Finished 3rd: “It was a solid night. Our Busch Light Ford was fast and we were able to come through the field and do what we needed to do.”

RYAN BLANEY — Finished 4th: “We weren’t very good on the long run. I felt that we had a great short run car tonight, and I thought that was going to play right into our hands at the end. (Martin Truex Jr.) got us on that restart somehow. I don’t know. I was super loose there on the last restarts and (Truex) got me spinning my tires a little bit. It kind of stinks. I think that it says a lot about this team to go out and lead some laps and go have a shot and win races.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 5th: “It just seemed like other guys got better than us. We tried to adjust on our car and it never really made it better. The M&M’s Camry was fast when the sun was out. We were pretty quick up there riding the high side and doing a good job. We won the first segment and then the second segment I thought we were – had a shot to win that one as well. I think we were third in that one and once it got dark out, we just kind of lost it. Actually, other guys just got faster. The delta just got greater where those guys picked up a lot of speed and we didn’t.”

Kyle Larson – Finished 6th: “The early parts of the race I thought we were okay, not great, but I thought we were like a fourth- or fifth-place car and I got into the wall on one of those later restarts after that big wreck. I just got really tight and it took off and hit the wall. Then my car was pretty tight afterwards, so I’m sure some aerodynamic issues there, but still recovered for a decent finish there. The restarts weren’t really working out for me there the last handful of them. It seemed like at the beginning of the race I could pass people no problem on restarts. There at the end, my line just kept getting choked down and stuff, but sixth place is still a good day for our Target team. The No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) finished really well so that is not great for us because I would like to be leading the points here in a few months. Still in all a good day.”

DANIEL SUÁREZ– Finished 7th: “Very proud of the way that the car worked the entire race. Scott (Graves, crew chief) and the guys they did a very good job. We had a top-10 car and that’s exactly where we ended up. Very happy for the performance of the car and looking forward to keep digging, keep working and keep learning for next weekend.”

Jamie McMurray – Finished 8th: “So, we had a really good night. We had a hard time in the pits tonight. I’m not sure if something with the set-up of the car, but we struggled in the pits, but overall, we had a really fast McDonald’s Chevy. We were pretty good on restarts, which was important, and I’m really happy to finish eighth because we restarted like 20th or something with two or three to go. It was a good finish.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 9th: “That just wasn’t very good tonight. We were kind of off all weekend. Definitely off in the race. I started off good and we were just down on rear grip. I fought loose the whole time I was out there and it seemed like everything we were doing — we were doing some fundamentally different things to try to tighten the car up. It changes the aero balance of the car and I am not too sure. Maybe we learned something tonight.”

Trevor Bayne — Finished 10th: “That was a hard-fought 10th-place finish. If you’d told me I would finish 10th after practice I would have probably kissed you on the forehead. That wasn’t a good practice for us and we still qualified 16th. It is funny how expectations change. A year ago, I would have been pumped for a 10th and now it is what we should be doing. We are getting better. Our potential is better. If we can finish 10th on a weekend like this, when we get the cars where we need them we can do business. I appreciate the hard work and execution by my team tonight.”

Michael McDowell – Finished 13th: “You know it’s tough on pit road and I would have to go back and watch it, but obviously, Chase (Elliott) took two tires there. I was following the No. 88 into the box, so I couldn’t see the No. 24 coming out at all and by the time we made contact he was at my left rear. I just didn’t see him coming in, and I don’t think his crew chief knew I was coming in either because he sent him when both the No. 88 and myself were turning into the box right in front of him. So, it just happens on pit road. It definitely wasn’t anything that I felt like I could have prevented because I didn’t even see him coming out of the box. Unfortunate I know because we got a lot of damage and obviously, it took him out for the day too. But, good recovery, everybody at LFR has been working really hard.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 14th: “Man, did this team fight hard. We struggled in the first two stages to find the perfect balance. We spun when we stayed out with old tires, but we didn’t get any damage and were able to recover. It started coming to us there in the final stage, but it was just impossible to pass cars. We really needed track position that we just didn’t have. We picked up some spots at the end with the cautions though and brought home a solid top-15 finish. We have a lot of notes to take back with us on our intermediate-track program. There is still some work to do, but we’ll get there.”

Kasey Kahne – Finished 15th: “The guys did a great job tonight. We had good pit stops and we had a good car. After the red flag the car just got really loose for whatever reason. We had a good run though until that point.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Finished 20th: “For whatever reason, the car had a lot of vibration issues. We had some loose wheels. I thought we had one early in the race, but it is questionable whether it was, but it was shaking pretty bad. We had a lot of vibrations late in the race and one in particular that was real serious. You know it’s just a judgement call whether you stay out there and the wheel comes off or you come in and get it tightened up. I don’t think we had any loose wheels after that. I don’t think we had only but one loose wheel tonight. Looking back through our notes this is a track where we all kind of complain a lot about vibrations and thinking we have loose wheels when we don’t. I know a lot of guys tonight complained a lot about it, so if I would have thought about that and kind of known that in the heat of the moment I probably wouldn’t have stayed out on the track, but we had about a 10th- to a 15th-place finish lined up.  And I came in for a vibration that wasn’t a loose wheel and we lost a lap and we got it back and ended up 20th. We had a much better car than that. Had good speed, liked the car and we had good speed in practice.”

Danica Patrick — Finished 36th: “We were having a really good race and having fun out there and had a lot of speed. I kinda felt like Wonder Woman for a little while. All I know is that I all of a sudden crashed. I definitely had a feeling it was the 22 and I am sure that the doctors in the medical center checking my neurological abilities are glad to know I was right that it was Joey. When he said he had a failure I can’t say it made me feel that much better in the moment. I am just frustrated for the lack of breaks I get. It seems like every time things are going better and something happens I get crashed or am in a crash. Especially a place like this, a brake rotor, when we are using 200-300 pounds of pressure seems odd. Unfortunately there were two of us that got collected and while I am okay, one of these times one of these really big accidents someone is not going to be okay. Aric (Almirola) is not okay and his car looked the best of everybody. You never know when it is going to be the wrong hit. I have a team that works hard and put another car on the track and I hope we are saving up for a really good run of good luck.”

Joey Logano — Finished 37th:  I’m okay. Just saying a lot of prayers for Aric (Almirola) right now. A lot of us took a hard hit. Something broke on my car, I don’t know what it was. I noticed it as I was trying to go in. I tried to back it off but you’re going 215 (mph) and it’s hard to check up. The car just took a bit step sideways into the corner and I hooked Danica (Patrick). I haven’t seen a replay yet, I don’t know what happened. I just hope everyone is okay. I hope Aric is alright. That’s the last thing you want to see, a big hit like that for anyone. It’s unfortunate for everyone.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 40th: “The bottom end of the motor just broke. We finally got the Caterpillar Chevrolet running well, not to where we needed to be, but better from how we started the race. We knocked a hole in the grill from a spring rubber or something. I watched what I hit, but I couldn’t tell what it was. Finally got enough tape on it so it would run warm and stick a little bit better and made a whole bunch of changes to the car, but just something in the motor broke, bottom end for sure, but I’m not really sure what happened first.”

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Race for final Cup playoff spot tightens at Kentucky

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Paul Menard’s 11th-place finish might be easy to overlook but it was one of the noteworthy performances Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

Menard’s finish — along with Alex Bowman placing last — allowed Menard to gain 32 points on Bowman in the race for the final playoff spot.

“We are right in the thick of the points stuff, so we can’t afford this,” Bowman said after his crash that left him with a 39th-place finish. “This will hurt us quite a bit.”

The result hurt him but maybe not as much as he feared.

Bowman has 427 points. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is next at 418 and Menard has 404.

With seven winners this season and seven races left, at least two of the 16 playoff spots will be determined by points.

If the current domination by Kentucky winner Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch continues, there could be a record number of drivers who make the playoffs by points. The most who made the playoffs via points was five in 2015. That seems likely to fall.

While Menard made up many points on Bowman, it still didn’t make up for all the ground Menard lost to Bowman the previous three races. Bowman finished in the top 10 at Sonoma, Chicagoland and Daytona and gained 51 more points than Menard in those races.

Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky. Stenhouse had contact with Jamie McMurary’s car that led to a tire rub and forced Stenhouse to pit on Lap 23 and then again on Lap 27 under green. Stenhouse fell three laps down. He gained two laps back and finished 26th on what could have been a bigger night for him with Bowman’s misfortune.

“I’m not really sure what happened, but the No. 1 got into us, which cut our left rear tire,” Stenhouse said. “We were able to cut our deficit in the point standings. We will focus on the next seven weekends and getting the No. 17 team in the playoffs.”

While Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky, it didn’t overcome what he had lost the three previous races to the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Bowman had scored 15 more points during that stretch.

With Bowman having problems, it created an opening for drivers further back but Richard Childress Racing teammates managed to make only modest gains.

Newman gained 15 points on Bowman and is 79 points back. Dillon gained 14 points on Bowman and is 65 points back. Both Dillon and Newman had vibrations early in the race and that forced them to pit in the first 31 laps under green. Newman was later penalized for removing equipment from the pit stall.

“We definitely improved our qualifying effort, but ultimately it comes down to where we finished and we still have some work to do,” Newman said. “Our car wasn’t that bad, but getting track position after that first run and a pit road penalty were too tough to overcome.”

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Long: Martin Truex Jr.’s dominant win doesn’t discourage competition

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SPARTA, Kentucky — On a night when Martin Truex Jr. exerted his dominance, led nearly two-thirds of the laps, won both stages and then the race, his competitors left Kentucky Speedway with …

Hope.

Even crew chief Cole Pearn’s eyes bulged at the notion.

Truex’s third victory in the past six events should be a sign that his Furniture Row Racing team is primed to repeat last year’s surge when it won six of the final 19 races on the way to winning the championship.

Truex, who started from the pole Saturday, called the weekend his team’s most complete of the season. About the only thing that didn’t go as plan was when Truex needed to jump from his car as it rolled down the frontstretch banking, shortening his victory celebration in front of the fans.

That Truex had such a dominant performance throughout the weekend should be scary to every team that does not employ Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick.

Yet runner-up Ryan Blaney, while disappointed he didn’t win, could be upbeat about his team’s run. So was teammate Brad Keselowski. And Kyle Larson, who has been one of the toughest foes to the triumvirate of Truex, Busch and Harvick, also could walk away with some good feelings despite a ninth-place finish.

It would be easy to suggest that they’re merely fooling themselves. Truex, Harvick and Busch finished 1-2-3 in the first stage. Truex won the second stage with Busch second and Harvick fourth. Truex’s victory marked the 13th consecutive race either he, Busch or Harvick have won at a 1.5-mile track.

In a sport where the rules are meant to keep the field close, Truex, Harvick and Busch have separated themselves from everyone else.

But Blaney sees the gap closing.

I wouldn’t say we’re frustrated or defeated,” he said. “I mean, I might be a little down just because I wanted to win the race, but you go back and you realize that you’ve made gains and you’ve just got to keep making those.”

Keselowski, who finished third, interjected: “We can see the end of the tunnel, and we’re just 20 yards away. It’s just a matter of getting there, not taking a step back and taking a step forward.”

Of course, those final steps are the most difficult.

Keselowski is heartened based on how far his team has come.

“We’ve been right in that fifth‑ to six‑place range, but I feel like when they drop the green, the leaders just drive away from us, and this week, at least at the start of the race, we were able to run with Martin,” Keselowski said. “ As the race progressed we couldn’t stay with him, but all in all, that’s still as fast as we’ve been on a mile‑and‑a‑half this year, and that’s something commendable for my team.”

The closer one believes they are to the leaders, the more hope grows.

Larson was encouraged that he passed Truex for second with about 90 laps to go before his trackbar failed and his handling went away.

“I felt like I was better than (Harvick),” Larson said of the fifth-place finisher. “I passed (Busch, who placed fourth) a couple of times, passed (Truex) there before that second to last run. I passed him and kind of drove away from him for a few laps until right when our trackbar broke. Like I said, it’s hard to say if I would have had a shot to win. You never know how these races will play out, but I would have loved to have had a shot.”

Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston, was buoyed by his driver’s run until the mechanical issue.

“Those guys are fast, so we’ve just got to keep working hard and try to figure out how to get faster and get faster twice as fast as they do because they’re not stopping,” Johnston told NBC Sports. “But I feel like we’ve closed that gap throughout the year.”

The progress these teams have made has gained the attention of Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers.

Harvick won five of the first 12 races but has seen his advantage slip. He finished fourth at Pocono last month but placed behind Truex, Larson and Busch. Harvick was second to Truex at Sonoma and third to Busch and Larson at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago.

Childers told NBC Sports that he’s been “trying to be as safe as we can” with the car since the team was docked 20 points and all seven playoff points for its stage wins and race victory at Las Vegas in March. NASCAR penalized the team because the rear window did not remain rigid throughout that race.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said.

While he said he felt Harvick was faster than Truex most of Saturday night at Kentucky — the key difference was track position — Childers acknowledged that he might have to adjust his thinking on the car’s setup in the coming weeks.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, (Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been.

“The thing I see with (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

If not, others might pass his car. There’s a group that believes they’re coming.

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Even after Kevin Harvick’s first Kentucky top five, team might ‘ramp it back up’

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Kevin Harvick, who entered Saturday’s Quaker Stage 400 with three wins on 1.5-mile tracks this season, placed fifth at a track he admitted is “definitely not my favorite place.”

Harvick, who started third, earned his 14th top five through 19 races and his first at Kentucky in eight starts.

But Harvick failed to lead a lap for the second time this season in seven races at 1.5-mile tracks. Both instances have been since his last points win in May at Kansas Speedway.

“We just never got all the way to the front and on the last run we got too loose and that was our worst run of the night and I hit the wall and that pretty much ended it,” Harvick told NBCSN. “We’ve never dominated here, so I don’t pay much attention to this place.”

Harvick said “it’s hard to make anything happen” at the track passing wise.

Though Harvick has only placed outside the top five once this year at mile-and-a-half tracks (Charlotte, wreck) crew chief Rodney Childers said his team “might have to ramp it back up” with increased performances recently from race-winner Martin Truex Jr, Team Penske and Kyle Larson.

Childers told NBC Sports the No. 4 team has been as “safe as we can with everything right now” in terms of car preparation.

The Stewart-Haas Racing team has been cautious after a 20-point penalty for a failed window brace following its Las Vegas win. The penalty also cost Harvick seven playoff points.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said. “We’re trying to be smart with our racing, but still trying to be competitive and run up front.”

Harvick remains tied with Kyle Busch for wins at five. He’s finished outside of the top 10 just four times.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, the 42 (Kyle Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been. It’s all part of that thing and people figuring it out. The thing I see with the (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build the best stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

Kyle Larson left to ponder what might have been after mechanical failure

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Kyle Larson climbed from his Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, which was parked on pit road far away from the top five finishers and from victory lane.

A ninth-place result left the top-finishing Chevy driver to wonder what if Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

A trackbar failure dramatically changed the car’s handling late in the race and a car that had run toward the front struggled to finish in the top 10.

“It’s hard to say if I would have had anything to win,” Larson said. “I drove by (winner Martin Truex Jr.) and then right after that we had our trackbar issue there and went plowing tight. Then we had to crutch it with wedge there the last run … (and it was) really tight at the last 25 laps or so. So, yeah, it’s hard to say if I would have won or not, but I would have at least liked to have had the shot.”

Crew chief Chad Johnston said his options were limited when the trackbar failed.

“We know that the trackbar fell to the lowest position it could,” he said. “Why that happened, we’re still trying to figure out. Obviously when it fell, it tightens the car up and then we had to asses the situation if we could have fixed it. I don’t think we could have without losing a lap. So then we just adjusted the car around the trackbar being that low. At that point, we lost too much track position and way too late to overcome it.”

It was part of a challenging race for Larson, who relinquished his 18th starting spot and had to take the opening green flag from the rear of the field. He was penalized for missing driver introductions. Larson was running to the stage when he was called.

“A little miscommunication and was late to intros,” Larson said.

Even with that mishap, he was 18th by the 20th lap and was in the top 10 before the first stage ended. He finsihed eighth in the first stage and fifth in the second stage.

Larson was able to cut through the field at times by using an outside line most didn’t.

“I was surprised how quickly (Turns) 3 and 4 moved up,” Larson said. “I knew it would move up a little bit, and I didn’t know it would move up that far. So, I was happy about that. You could kind of roll a little more speed on exit. Was surprised that the track widened out.  (Turns) 1 and 2 I thought had potential to, but it kind of just stalled out and got too tight.  A lane off the bottom was just a little too tight. But yeah, it was a decent track.”