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Four drivers chasing Brad Keselowski for final spot in championship round

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AVONDALE, Arizona — One driver seeks history. Another seeks redemption. A third seeks recognition.

Two others seek opportunity.

Today’s Cup race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) at Phoenix Raceway marks the final chance for five drivers to take the one remaining spot in next weekend’s championship round. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. will race for a title in Miami. Who will join them?

Jimmie Johnson seeks a record eighth title but is 51 points out of a transfer spot.

“It’s a pretty easy approach for us,’’ said Johnson, who starts 12th. “We’re in a must-win-situation. We wish we were in a better points scenario, but that’s not the case. This team thrives on pressure and adversity and we’re certainly in the position right now.”

Denny Hamlin comes to Phoenix looking for a chance to advance after he was eliminated from title contention at this track last year.

He trails Brad Keselowski by 19 points for the final transfer spot. Hamlin starts today’s race second, while Keselowski starts 16th. But that won’t change Hamlin’s strategy.

“I didn’t think they were going to qualify that great, but they typically race pretty well here,’’ Hamlin said of Keselowski. “I’m not going to count on anything – not until we get to the end of the first stage and I see where we’re at. I’m confident that starting right there, we should probably be up front all day.”

One driver Hamlin is racing for a spot in the championship round is Chase Elliott. Hamlin knocked Elliott out of the lead and into the wall two weeks ago at Martinsville. Is he worried about Chase Elliott?

“Was I worried last weekend? No and I’m not worried this weekend,’’ Hamlin said. “No, I’m not worried. Everyone up front is professionals and we all have one job to do and that’s to win.’’

Elliott looks for his first championship round appearance in Cup but trails Keselowski by 49 points.

“Our task at hand is pretty simple, we have to win the race to move on next week,’’ said Elliott, who starts fourth. “It’s not the most ideal situation, but if you were able to pull it off it would be a lot of momentum moving into next week. We will give it our best shot and see what happens.”

Ryan Blaney starts on the pole and trails Keselowski by 22 points in his bid for his first appearance in the championship round. Although Blaney is starting well ahead of Keselowski, he said his approach won’t change for today’s race.

“Those guys are going to be good in the race,’’ Blaney said of Keselowski. “The 2 car struggled in qualifying, but he’ll find his way up there. Our mindset coming into this weekend was really trying to win the race and sitting on the pole my mindset doesn’t change.’’

Keselowski has the pressure of holding the final transfer spot, but he’s not fazed.

“I think (Hamlin, Elliott and Blaney) have shown that they can win the race, maybe even (Johnson), so it would not be a good play to be on defense,’’ Keselowski said. “I’m going to try to win the race.”

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NASCAR America: Paul Menard, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. among winners, losers at Kentucky

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On Monday’s NASCAR America, Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton discussed the winners and losers among drivers in Saturday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway.

Letarte singled out Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as one of the losers after he failed to overtake Alex Bowman in the playoff standings. Bowman entered the race as the last driver above the cutoff line for the 16 driver field in the playoffs.

Bowman earned his first DNF after he crashed from a flat tire and finished last.

Meanwhile, Stenhouse finished 26th, one lap down after he had to pit twice early in Stage 1, the first time for a cut tire. He is now nine points behind Bowman for the final playoff spot.

“To only gain 10 points on a driver who finished last in the field is a huge missed opportunity,” Letarte said. “When you look at drivers scoring 30, 40, 50 points each, Paul Menard picked up over 30. So the chance was there to gain (on) that bigger group and he just didn’t do it. So when I look at what Ricky Stenhouse did, he really missed probably 15 or 20 points. I know it was a flat tire, there’s always a reason. But in the end you have to make the playoffs, you have to go out there and take it from Alex Bowman, who has put him in that position.”

Burton picked Menard as a winner. The Wood Brothers Racing driver placed 11th Saturday after finishing fifth in Stage 1 and 10th in Stage 2.

He is now 18th in the standings, 23 points back from Bowman

“They performed well, got good stage finishes and did what they needed to do,” Burton said. “This team is starting to get a little bit better every single week. I find it very interesting that back there for that 16th spot it’s really a fight of mediocrity, to be honest with you, and who is going to not mess up.”

Watch the above video for more.

Erik Jones, Martin Truex Jr. benefitting from surviving Daytona

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It took until July, but it seems Erik Jones has finally found his footing at Joe Gibbs Racing.

And the 22-year-old driver is somewhat keeping pace with one of the members of the “Big Three.”

Thanks to them surviving the carnage at Daytona, Jones – who won the race – and Martin Truex Jr. are the only Cup drives enjoying active streaks of top-10 finishes.

With Truex’s win and Jones’ seventh-place finish on Saturday at Kentucky Speedway, they each have four consecutive top 10s.

The streaks began with the June 24 race at Sonoma, which Truex also won.

Jones’ Kentucky finish came after he radioed his team multiple times during the race about his concerns that his engine might blow up.

Jones needs two more top 10s to match his streak of six last season during his rookie campaign at Furniture Row Racing. That streak started at the July race at Pocono and ended with the regular-season finale at Richmond.

Here’s a look at the best top 10 streaks this season among drivers with nine or more top 10s (Jones and Ryan Blaney have nine).

Kyle Busch (15 top 10s) – Steaks of eight and six consecutive top 10s; current streak: one top 10

Kevin Harvick (15 top 10s) – Streaks of three, seven and four top 10s; current streak: one top 10

Joey Logano (14 top 10s)  – Streaks of three, six and two top 10s; Currents streak: one top 10

Martin Truex Jr. (13 top 10s) – Steaks of five and four (twice) top 10s; Current streak: four top 10s

Kyle Larson (11 tops 10s) – Streaks of four and two (twice) top 10s; Current streak: one top 10

Brad Keselowski (11 top 10s) – Steaks of three and two (twice) top 10s; Current streak: one top 10

Clint Bowyer (10 top 10s) – Streaks of four and three top 10s; Current streak: none

Kurt Busch (10 top 10s) – Streaks of four and two top 10s; Current streak: one top 10

Denny Hamlin (10 top 10s) – Streaks of three and two (three times) top 10; Current streak: none

Erik Jones (nine top 10s) – Streaks of four and three tops 10s; Current streak: four top 10s

Ryan Blaney (nine top 10s) – Streaks of three and two tops 10s; Current streak: one top 10.

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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Kentucky recap, Fantasy standings

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and recaps the storylines from the weekend’s racing at Kentucky Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Steve Letarte from Stamford, Connecticut. Jeff Burton joins them from Burton’s Garage.

On today’s show:

  • We take a look back at Martin Truex Jr.’s dominant performance on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway. Is Truex better now than in his 2017 championship season? Our experts weigh in.
  • We’ll also hear from Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, who both expressed frustration following top-five performances on Saturday. We’ll examine the ongoing competition between NASCAR’s Big Three with just seven races remaining until the playoffs.
  • Speaking of the playoffs, we’ll check in on the Bubble Boys. Paul Menard had a huge night points-wise, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. drew even closer to Alex Bowman, who currently holds the final playoff spot.
  • We’ll take a look at Christopher Bell’s winning performance in Friday’s Xfinity Series race. Plus, we’ll find out who the big winners were among the NBC broadcasters in NASCAR Fantasy.
If can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Martin Truex Jr: ‘I still pinch myself’ three years into dominance with Furniture Row

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As Martin Truex Jr. stood in the back of a truck riding around Kentucky Speedway before last Saturday’s Cup race, a fan called out to the 2017 champion.

“Let somebody else win!” he yelled.

After a beat, Truex responded with a chuckle, “No!”

Truex stayed true to his word. A few hours later, the Furniture Row Racing driver took the checkered flag to claim his fourth win of the season.

His triumph over Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski took his career win total to 19 – tying him on the all-time wins list with Joey Logano, 2019 Hall of Fame inductee Davey Allison, Greg Biffle, Hall of Famer Buddy Baker and Fonty Flock.

The victory is the 17th for the No. 78 team since 2015. Truex leads all drivers in wins since 2016 with 16.

For a driver who only won twice in his first nine full-time seasons, Truex said “I still pinch myself” over his dominance of the sport.

He doesn’t lead the series in wins after 19 races. That goes to Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who are tied at five wins each.

This marks the first time since 1974 that three drivers have won four or more races at this point in a season.

“I think all three of us have great teams,” Truex said after his win. “Those two guys are great drivers. Obviously, I have a lot of respect for them. It’s pretty amazing to be a part of this group, honestly. I think when I was a kid and you (saw) Dale (Earnhardt) and Rusty (Wallace) and guys like that, Terry Labonte and you had guys that just dominated and won everything, and watching them, it was like, ‘Man, that’s so cool, they’re heroes and they’re such a big deal,’ and to think that I’m one of those guys this year and I guess last year, too, is just ‑‑ it’s amazing to me.”

Even after he won his first Cup title last November, it didn’t occur to him until almost a month later that he will one day be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame alongside Earnhardt, Wallace and Labonte.

Truex joined Furniture Row Racing in 2014 after losing his ride at Michael Waltrip Racing, a casualty of the race manipulation scandal involving MWR in the 2013 regular season finale at Richmond Raceway.

That year, Truex went winless, led one lap and finished 24th in the standings.

The following season Truex was paired with rookie crew chief Cole Pearn. The duo won one race, earned eight top fives and made the Championship 4.

In their 126 races together, the duo has put together a record comparable to other great driver-crew chief parings in Cup history.

“Really the last three years have been just having the time of my life and just lucky to have great people around us, a great car owner (Barney Visser),” Truex said. “Just feel really lucky.  I’ve been on the other side of it before where teams were struggling and struggled to get in position to win races, and having a lot of things kind of going against you and kind of fighting that uphill battle.

“So it’s amazing to be on this side of it. I can’t tell you how proud I am of all the guys on our team and what they’ve done, and I honestly just enjoy every single one of these wins like it’s my first because you never know when they’re going to come to an end.  You never know when you’re going to have your last one. You never know what’s going to happen next. Just trying to ride the wave of momentum and enjoy it all, and my team is just so badass, I can’t even explain it.”

Truex, 38, “always felt” he “could get the job done” during the early years of his Cup career, spent with Dale Earnhardt Inc. and then MWR.

“I had enough glimpses of really good days or glimpses of greatness that I think it just kept me alive, kept me hungry enough to keep fighting for it,” said Truex, who won two Xfinity championships before moving to Cup. “I think through the years there was just ‑‑ for me personally, and I don’t know what everybody else thought, I know I had some people that probably didn’t think I was that good.

“That’s part of this deal.  You’re only as good as your last race. And if you’re not getting results now, people question your ability.  … For me personally, I always (felt) like I could be a good driver, be a great driver.  I never knew I’d get to where I was last year, and I never really knew I could go on a championship run and win (16) races in three years … That’s been amazing.”