Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon have second-best races of year with Southern 500 top fives

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – In the Southern 500, the 25th race in a very long season, Kurt Busch and Austin Dillon had their best nights of the year.

That’s saying a lot about the seasons of Busch, who won the Daytona 500, and Dillon, who won the Coke 600, two of NASCAR’s other three crown jewels.

Both finished in the top five of Sunday night’s race, with Busch placing third ahead of Dillon.

Busch led seven laps, his most this season, following a round of green-flag pit stops in the middle of the final stage before being overran by Martin Truex Jr. with 42 laps left.

“I was hoping for one more yellow,” Busch said. “If there was a yellow with 30 to go, we were a really good car on short-run speed and that was the longest run at the end. Those guys caught us on their fresher tires. But to just to be in a position to win the Southern 500 is great. Didn’t quite get the job done, but third is really nice for a big, marquee race.”

In Busch’s 21st Darlington start, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver earned his third top five. It was his first since 2010 when he was with Team Penske.

It was also just his third top five since he won the Daytona 500 after his No. 41 Ford survived a wave of leaders dropping off with empty fuel tanks.

“We’re chipping away at it,” Busch said. “The Daytona 500 win was great, but it seemed like it put us behind for a while. But honestly, the balance in the Ford, that’s what we’ve been working on and now we’re finding things we change on the car and it hooks up the front and the rear at the same time. We haven’t been hooking up the front, unhooking the rear and vice versa. So it feels we’re finding the balance on our Ford that way.”

Sunday’s finish was also his second top five in a row after a late surge two weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway to place fifth.

The results come in the month since it was announced SHR was not picking up his option for 2018.

Though he’s safely locked into the playoffs, Busch said his team was already in postseason mode.

“We’ve had a couple good runs, but, still, we’ve got 11 weeks ahead of us,” Busch said. “We treated this whole weekend like it was the playoffs. Richmond will be the same thing next week.”

While Busch prayed for a late caution, Dillon was giving grace for the race staying green for the final 101 laps.

Dillon enjoyed his best night since gambling on fuel to win the Coke 600 in May for his first Cup win.

On Sunday, Dillon gambled instead on tires over the last stretch of the race.

“We thought our car was really good on long runs, that’s (why we made the decision) to stay out there and it’s kind of scary because (you might) have a flat tire or you just run out of tire,” Dillon said. “I was good enough to save tires. I like long runs, always been a long-run kind of driver. Short runs, I’ve been working hard to get better at. Glad it went long there at the end.”

While it gave him his third top five of the year, it was his first in 13 races. But it was also just his fourth top 10.

By this point last year the Richard Childress Racing driver had 10 of the 13 top-10 finishes he would earn.

“We’re never giving up, and RCR is working hard,” Dillon said. “We were down pretty bad. That race at Charlotte, after that we’ve got a slump. Just a lot of hard work going on at the shop knowing we’ve got to get better. It feels pretty good to have run like this.”

Dillon put together his race in a paint scheme and firesuit honoring Dale Earnhardt’s 1987 win in the Southern 500.

“I’ll tell you what, this is one (firesuit) I’ll probably want to keep, man,” Dillon said. “To bring out this Dale Earnhardt car, it means so much to so many. I’m glad we represented it well. This is a pretty hot firesuit, I must admit it. I love it. I might get Dale Jr .to sign it and put it up.”

Grant Enfinger wins Truck pole at Gateway

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With a speed of 138.867 mph, Grant Enfinger scored his second career Camping World Truck Series pole and will lead the field to green tonight for the Eaton 200. His first pole came on the restrictor plate Daytona International Speedway in February 2016.

Noah Gragson set a track record in round two of qualification with a speed of 139.035 mph. He slipped to third in the running order during round three.

Enfinger beat Christian Eckes (138.594 mph) by .064 seconds. Eckes is making only his second start in the Truck series. Last week he started ninth and finished eighth at Iowa Speedway.

Gragson (138.402), Justin Haley (138.325) and Ben Rhodes (138.211) rounded out the top five.

Johnny Sauter (137.358) failed to advance to the final round of qualification and will start 13th.

Camden Murphy and BJ McLeod failed to qualify.

Click here for the complete lineup.

Starting lineup for Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma

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Kyle Larson won his second consecutive pole at Sonoma and will lead the field to the green flag for Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

Martin Truex Jr. will line up alongside Larson on the front row.

Chase Elliott qualified third, the best of three Hendrick Motorsports drivers who advanced to the top 12. Jamie McMurray qualified fourth to place both Chip Ganassi Racing on the first two rows.

AJ Allmendinger rounded out the top five.

Click here for full qualification results.

 

Kyle Larson wins pole for Sonoma Cup race

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Kyle Larson posted a lap of 94.597 mph to win the pole for Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350. It was his second consecutive pole at Sonoma and the sixth of his career.

Larson beat Martin Truex Jr. (94.484 mph) by .090 seconds.

Chase Elliott (94.461), Jamie McMurray (94.227) and AJ Allmendinger (93.925) rounded out the top five. He was fastest in round one of qualification with a speed of 94.477 mph.

Hendrick Motorsports placed three of their drivers in the final round. Jimmie Johnson (93.824) qualified seventh. William Byron (93.756) qualified eighth. Alex Bowman (93.267) qualified 17th.

In his first race back since Matt Kenseth took over the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, Trevor Bayne barely missed advancing to the final round. With a speed of 93.455 mph, he qualified 13th.

Clint Bowyer (93.252) was unable to back up his time from Friday’s practice and will roll off the grid 19th.

Click here for full qualification results.

For Clint Bowyer, Sonoma Raceway is a lot like Martinsville

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Clint Bowyer didn’t grow up road racing; he cut his teeth on dirt tracks in the Midwest. And yet, he had an immediate affinity for Sonoma Raceway. In his second start there, while driving for Richard Childress in 2007, he finished fourth.

In fact, Bowyer enters the Toyota/SaveMart 350 with seven top-five finishes in 12 starts that includes a runner-up finish in last year’s Sonoma race. If not for a couple of misfortunes (crash damage in 2010 and an electrical problem in 2016), he might well have swept the top 10 since scoring that first top five as a sophomore.

Perhaps the reason for that immediate success is that he considers Sonoma to be a twisted version of Martinsville Speedway – a track on which he won this March to snap a 190-race winless streak.

“I think you embrace this track and road racing in general just like you do Martinsville,” Bowyer said on Friday before heading out to put his No. 14 Ford at the top of the first practice speed chart. “Nobody shows up at Martinsville and goes to the top of the board and is fast and has success and navigates traffic to win that race right off the bat. It just doesn’t happen and it doesn’t happen here either.”

His Sonoma success has not translated to road courses in general, however.

Yes, Bowyer swept the top five on NASCAR’s two road courses last year, but the fifth-place finish he scored at Watkins Glen International was only the second of his career on a track that many drivers consider to be less technical than Sonoma. In 12 starts there, he has earned only five top 10s.

“Watkins Glen is so fast. It is just dive-bombs and you are really carrying a lot of speed at a place like Watkins Glen.

“Here, it is like that short track. It is like being at Martinsville. Did you see my car at the end of the race last year? It was destroyed. I drove up through and passed the field twice because of mistakes that we made and got spun out once. It was a wild race to be able to finish second. You can’t do that at Watkins Glen. That car wouldn’t have ran in the top 10 at Watkins Glen.”

Nine different drivers have won at Sonoma in the last nine races. Given the dominance of Harvick (who won last year) and Kyle Busch (the 2015 winner), many think they are the most likely to end that streak. But Bowyer also has an opportunity to end the streak of unique winners. He won the 2012 edition of this race by holding off Tony Stewart – the driver with the second-most road course wins in NASCAR history.

“You have to be able to have fun on this race track,” Bowyer said. “It is a challenge. Each and every corner is different. There is no perfect setup or perfect line. It is literally one of the only tracks you go to where you are out there racing and have a smile on your face. You might even get a chuckle.”