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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Blake Koch, from roof cleaner to NASCAR pole winner

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Blake Koch never set eyes on a NASCAR race until the 2007 Daytona 500.

That’s when the 21-year-old Florida native watched one of the most dramatic finishes in NASCAR history on TV, as Kevin Harvick edged Mark Martin by .02 seconds to win as Clint Bowyer slid down the frontstretch on his roof.

A year later, the young man who had grown up racing dirt bikes attended his first race, the Daytona 500. It ended far less dramatically.

“I remember sitting on the back straightaway in grandstands, pouring down rain,” Koch told NBC Sports. “Sitting there, not knowing if they were going to go green or not because I didn’t have a headset. I was just sitting there. We were with friends. They called the race and Matt Kenseth won. Then we sat in the parking lot for two hours. We couldn’t get out. … I did tell (my wife) we were going to do something different for parking the next time.”

Nine years later, the 31-year-old driver for Kaulig Racing earned his first NASCAR pole for the May 6 Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway. It came in his 189th start.

It was the first pole for Kaulig Racing, which competed in its inaugural season last year.

“Going through my mind was doing everything I possible could perfectly,” Koch said. “We ended up doing that and qualifying on the pole by a tenth. It was incredible, man. It was a cooler feeling than I thought it would be to get my first pole. Just how excited the team was. Man, at Talladega. That stat sticks with you for life. ‘I won the pole at Talladega.’ Everybody knows what Talladega is.”

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

(Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

NBC Sports: What track would you have expected to get your first pole?

Koch: A short track, any short track, really. Phoenix, Richmond, Iowa, New Hampshire. I feel like we qualify really well at the short tracks. But you know what, we go to Michigan, we go to Pocono, we’re always in the final rounds there. I knew it would come, I just didn’t know where it’d come. I absolutely didn’t think it would come at Talladega for some reason. We really don’t focus that much on single-car speed or single-car runs. We always make my car drive good in the draft. We have good notes from it. The crazy thing, man, is my car drove even better in the pack then it ever had. I had the fastest car there by itself and in the pack, it’s the best car I’ve ever had. We just had a really good car and it’s a shame that thing got torn up. But it’ll be ready for 2018 Daytona.

NBC Sports: A few days ago on Twitter you posted a picture, which you said was from six years ago or so, of you on a rooftop watering it down. What’s the context of that picture?

Koch: It was the beginning of 2011. My mom sent that to me because it popped up on her Facebook, ‘6 years ago today.’ In 2011 I was racing in the Xfinity Series, but I still had to work four days a week because I wasn’t getting paid to race at that point. I still had to make my living off the track. Those are sacrifices you have to make to get into the sport. There’s not very many seats available in NASCAR. When an opportunity comes, you take it and make the most of it. Even if you don’t get paid for a little while. I owned a pressure washer business with my stepdad and it was called Eco Clean Pressure Washing.

What I did Monday through Thursday, we went to different houses and I climbed on the roofs and we pressure washed the roofs in Florida. Then hopped on a plane Thursday afternoon and fly to the racetrack. My mom basically posted it because she was proud of how far I’ve come in the last six years or so. It’s just a cool reminder. And I wanted to post it because I’m always impassioned no matter what I do and I gave it 100 percent, no matter if I’m in NASCAR or on top of roofs cleaning it. I take passion and pride in everything I do.

NBC Sports: When did you finally step away from power washing full-time?

Koch: When me and my wife decided to move up to North Carolina and really pursue NASCAR all in. You can’t just try a little bit to make it. You won’t make it. If we hadn’t of moved to North Carolina and fully committed, I wouldn’t have made it, man. If I had a plan B, I probably would have taken it a long time ago. So when we moved up here and my wife quit her job and we moved up here without our family I had no option than to work harder than everybody else try to take advantage of every opportunity I had, and I was able to start making money driving race cars, whether it was racing or start-and-parking or spotting, I used to drive my buddies’ motor home to the track. So whatever I had to do to make ends meet is basically what I did and that led me to just staying in the sport over the years to be in a position to meet Matt Kaulig, who really took my career to a whole new level to start Kaulig Racing and sponsor me with Leaf Gutter Protection.

NBC Sports: What was your first car?

Koch: My first car was a 1998 Ford F150. … My mom bought the truck because I grew up racing dirt bikes, so we needed a pickup truck to put the dirt bike in the back of it and go practice and go race. By the time I was 16, she didn’t want to drive a pickup truck anymore, so she wanted to buy a car and I … basically took over the truck payments and I drove that F-150 for a couple of years.

NBC Sports: If you had a day where you didn’t have to be at the track or shop, your family was busy and you had no other obligations, how would you spend your day?

Koch: Oh man, it depends where I live. If I lived in Florida, I would go out on a boat and go deep-sea fishing from sunrise to sunset, all day long. That is what I love to do if I have any free time, is to go fishing out in the ocean. If I lived in North Carolina, my family was out-of-town, I had nothing to do. I would probably go golf right now. I’d go work on getting better at golf. I’d probably spend half the day at GoPro Motorplex and the other half of the day on the gold course.

NBC Sports: If you were competing in the Cup race at Bristol, what would be your introduction song?

Koch: It would definitely be “Welcome to my House” by Flo Rida. I feel like that fits in the intro song at Bristol perfectly.

NBC Sports: What’s your attachment to that song?

Koch: I got to meet Flo Rida a couple of years ago through one of our mutual sponsors and that is just a catchy song, it’s fun. My son loves that song. It’s all about confidence. He’s all ‘welcome to my house. You guys are all in my house.’ I feel if you’re running a Cup race at Bristol and you wanted to win, that’s the attitude you’ve got to take.

NBC Sports: What’s the most fun race you’ve ever been a part of?

Koch: You know what was fun? When we could tandem draft at the super speedways. I know we’re never going to do it again and it was dangerous. It was at Talladega and we had other drivers’ radio frequencies in the car. I think this was 2011 or 2012. That was really fun when you could team up with your buddy or somebody you liked or somebody you chose to and have them push you through the field and talk to them at the same time. That was really, really cool and I was glad I was able to experience that because I might never be able to experience that again.

NBC Sports: What’s on your bucket list that’s not related to racing?

Koch: Me and my wife have talked about going to Hawaii for our 10-year anniversary. So I’d have to say going to Hawaii is a bucket list item that I can see happening in the near future. We’re going to work towards making it happen. Hawaii on the movies and everything you see looks like the coolest place ever. And I’m not one that really likes to sight see or go different places and experience different things, but for some reason I really want to go to Hawaii and check it out.

Previous Xfinity Spotlights

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

Brandon Jones

Daniel Hemric

William Byron

Spencer Gallagher

Cole Custer

Ross Chastain

Elliott Sadler

Ben Kennedy

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Friday 5: Pressure builds for teams heading into Coca-Cola 600

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After all the fun and games of the All-Star Race, the focus returns this weekend to points and playoff spots.

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season. With only six winners this season, there’s the chance that a number of playoff spots could be claimed by points.

That increases the pressure on those fighting for those positions.

Jimmie Johnson enters the weekend 16th in the points, the final transfer spot to the playoffs. He leads Ryan Newman by eight points, Austin Dillon by 11 and Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter William Byron by 15.

Ryan Newman is eight points out of a playoff spot. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“The biggest thing is we need to get to victory lane,” Newman said after qualifying 18th Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “If you don’t get to victory lane, you don’t really have a chance.

“You’ve got to be a winner going into the last 10. Just pointing your way in doesn’t entertain me. If we do, great, and we come into a streak and progress in the last 10 (races), then even better. I really want to have that win and that momentum going into those last 10.”

Newman finished second for the championship in 2014 despite going winless that season. Since then, every driver racing for the championship in Miami has had at least one win that season. 

Some teams already are feeling that playoff pressure.

“It’s been a grind now for a couple of weeks for us,” said Dillon, the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 champion. “Hopefully, we can get a win, but it’s going to come down to points.

“I’ve been scratching and clawing every week. That’s where you hear some frustration from because you just want all you can get. When it comes down to it – and that last race happens – you’re going to want as many points as possible on your side.”

2. A fresh outlook 

Kyle Larson has been hitting the gym this season and working with Josh Wise, marking a new routine for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Wise, a former driver, now serves as the driver performance manager for Ganassi and for some of the younger drivers driving for JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.

Larson, who won last weekend’s All-Star Race, admits he’s not been one for workouts that much before this season.

“(Josh) would always still send information to me on pre-race stuff and things like that and I didn’t take it as serious as I needed to,” said Larson, who will start Sunday’s race 25th. “I kind of felt guilty about that. This year I’ve gotten into a good routine where I drop (son) Owen off at school and then I go to the shop and I work out.

“I think before it was hard for me to find that routine to get the motivation to do it. This year I feel like I’ve gotten that routine. It’s made it a lot easier and I’ve actually enjoyed it and noticed a little bit of a difference. I think just the way our sport has gone, more drivers are working out. You don’t want somebody to get an advantage or an edge on you. I feel like I’m just more prepared and confident now going to the track.”

3. Who is No. 1?

Joe Gibbs Racing has won the most races this season (seven). Team Penske won the most recent points race (Brad Keselowski at Kansas).

So which one is the strongest?

It might be another team.

I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars,” Keselowski said Thursday. “I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff, so I would expect them to be the ones to beat this weekend.”

He said that before Hendrick’s William Byron won the pole for the 600.

Kyle Busch also sees a difference in Hendrick Motorsports.

I think Hendrick has certainly found some speed,” he said. “They’re certainly getting better. They’re waking up. They’ve come to play a bit more lately.

“As far as the (Team) Penske group goes, they don’t really qualify well but they always race well. Then you look at the (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars and they qualify well and they’ll race well typically. It seems like the SHR cars are trimmed out a little bit more than some of the rest of us. They get more speed out of their cars but maybe they don’t have it for the long haul. Where it seems like the (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars are kind of a compromise.

“We might not qualify on the pole or be the best in qualifying, but we’ll race well. I wouldn’t call it middle of the road, but I feel like we’re in a position to win each week.”

4. More blocking?

In the most recent points race (at Kansas), Erik Jones upset Clint Bowyer with a block on the last lap. It was a big move from Jones who came down the track to block Bowyer and then moved up as Bowyer tried to go on the outside. That it was the last lap made it easier to understand Jones’ move.

Still, as the battles intensify, especially during restarts, more blocks are to be thrown. Did Jones’ block show others that they can be bolder in keeping a competitor behind?

“I didn’t even think twice about it when I saw it from my perspective,” Denny Hamlin said. “The person who gets blocked always makes it a bigger deal than what it really is. I think the other competitors probably don’t think anything about it to be honest with you.

“We all throw blocks at certain times and sometimes they’re not as dramatic. Sometimes … somebody would come up on you and you would just choose to run their lane and block them that way. It’s a less dramatic way of doing it but certainly one where you cut from high lane to low lane or whatever it might be, you are counting on the person either checking up or you are counting on them to lose enough air that they’re going to lose their car. That’s the whole reason you do it in the first place.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. described Jones’ block as “normal.”

“You can get mad about it, but we all do it, so you can’t get mad at somebody just because they do it to you. We throw blocks on each other all the time.

“Kyle Busch threw a block on me. I told (the spotter), ‘Hey, make sure he knows that later on in the race I’m not going to lift and he might end up in the fence.’ That’s just part of this package. The better track position you can keep yourself in, the better the car drives. … Obviously, at the end of the race, I think anything goes.”

5. An Olympian effort

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the first for rookie Daniel Hemric.

He’ll rely on some training he got a few years ago from Olympic speed skating champion Dan Jansen.

In 2016, Hemric and Tyler Reddick were teammates at Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series. Keselowski heard Jansen tell his story of overcoming defeat to win gold in his fourth Olympics.

Jansen entered his second Olympics as the favorite in the 500- and 1,000-meter races in the 1988 Games at Calgary. His sister died of leukemia hours before his 500-meter race. Jansen fell in that race. He later fell with a lap to go in the 1,000-meter race.

He failed to medal in the 1992 Games in Albertville and finally won gold in 1994 in Lillehammer in the 1,000-meter race.

After hearing Jansen speak, Keselowski approached the former Olympic champion.

“We just asked each other questions,” Keselowski said. “What did you do for this, how did you handle that? Different athletes compare notes. Some of that crosses over. A lot of it doesn’t, that’s OK. The crossover there I thought was very interesting. I wanted to apply it to our team. What he said made a lot of sense, and I thought it was something we were missing.”

Hemric had the chance to train with Jansen.

“We would do a really hard workout and get our heart rate extremely high, up in the 190s, 200 range, if not more, and have to get off that and do some hand-eye coordination stuff,” Hemric said. “Then as soon as that’s over, your heart rate is as high as it can be and you’re breathing heavy, closing your eyes and think about qualifying a lap, think about a green-white-checkered restart, putting yourself in those moments, thinking about what you would do and how you would do it. Being able to bring your heart rate down in those moments, seeing your heart, imagine seeing your heart slow down, all those things to get your body calm.”

Those are lessons Hemric continues to practice and says will help him in his first Coca-Cola 600.

“A lot of times in our sport it gets focused solely on the physical endurance part of it,” Hemric said. “The mental side in my opinion is going to be the most crucial. When you talk to other guys that have ran this race for the first time they’ve always said that when the first thing goes and they get tired, it’s their mind.

“That’s a long time to keep yourself mentally in the game. I’ve always kind of trained and had my own mental things that I do to visualize and think about those moments late in the race. It’s something I’ve had a lot of success with in the past. I’ve got to credit Dan Jansen. I’ve kept a lot of those methods in my training regimen and a lot of that was mental.”

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Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman ‘clear the air’ about All-Star incident

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CONCORD, N.C. — Five days after Clint Bowyer threw several punches at Ryan Newman as Newman sat in his car after the All-Star Race, the two sat side by side during an autograph session at a Bass Pro Shops near Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Bowyer was upset with Newman for contact that led to Bowyer crashing after last weekend’s race. After Bowyer drove to pit road, he ran to Newman’s car while still wearing his helmet — earning a rebuke from his team owner for not removing his helmet. After reaching Newman’s car, Bowyer unleashed a number of punches.

Both drivers talked this week before they got to the autograph session.

“It was good to have a conversation about it,” Bowyer said Thursday night after qualifying eighth at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. “At the end of the day there were a lot of things that escalated very fast and obviously got out of hand.

“There’s one thing I can always promise you about something like that and it is unfortunate, and you hate having things like that happen, (but) that’s probably the best attended autograph session at Bass Pro Shops that I’ve had in a long, long time.

“Obviously I don’t want to do that every weekend. At the end of the day we all love this sport, we are all passionate about this sport and every now and then that shows a little brighter.”

Bowyer was asked if he thought Newman would retaliate.

“I don’t know,” Bowyer said. “Hopefully it’s behind us. We both have a little better understanding of how it escalated into that and you’ve just got to get stuff like that behind you.”

Newman said it was good to talk to Bowyer about what happened.

“It was good to kind of clear the air,” Newman said. “It is what it is. It’s the past. Just something you always remember. You learn about somebody in a situation like that.”

Newman was asked if he’ll race Bowyer differently.

“I try to race everybody the same way and that’s hard because that’s what I get paid to do,” said Newman, who qualified 18th for the Coca-Cola 600. “I try to give-and-take when I came. The way it works anymore with stage points, especially in the All-Star race, you don’t give and take. You take.”

Starting lineup for the Coca-Cola 600

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William Byron will start first and Aric Almirola will start second for Sunday’s 60th running of the Coca-Cola 600.

Byron, 21, is the youngest pole-sitter in the race’s history.

The top five is completed by defending race winner Kyle Busch, 2017 race winner Austin Dillon and two-time 600 winner Kevin Harvick.

Click here for the starting lineup.

William Byron wins pole for Coca-Cola 600

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CONCORD, N.C. —  William Byron won the pole for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Byron claimed the top spot with a qualifying speed of 183.424 mph. At the age of 21, he’s the youngest Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter.

It’s Byron’s second career Cup pole, joining his pole in this year’s Daytona 500.

He beat out Aric Almirola (183.069 mph), Kyle Busch (182.933), Austin Dillon (182.766) and Kevin Harvick (182.741).

“This is awesome, a dream come true,” Byron told FS1. “Obviously, I grew up in Charlotte so I came to this race every year. It’s a dream come true to qualify on the pole next to Hendrick Motorsports across the street over there. … Can’t think of a better way to start the weekend.”

Byron has qualified on the front row five time this year and four times in the last seven races.

The pole is the 12th for Hendrick Motorsports in the 600, which leads all teams.

Busch has qualified in the top three for the last three 600s.

Corey LaJoie‘s No. 32 Ford failed pre-qualifying inspection twice, resulting in the ejection of an engineer.

Click here for qualifying results.