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What Drivers Said after Monday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Monday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway:

Clint Bowyer – WINNER: “This is a place where I’ve gotten so close. I wanted to win this grandfather clock so bad. … We got so close back in 2012. …  For whatever reason, it felt right driving up here. … I told (son Cash) this morning, I was like, ‘Damn it, we’ve got to get our picture in victory lane.’ He told me he wanted a checkered flag. Let me tell you something, Gene Haas, Tony Stewart, to give this old dog a fresh chance and fresh blood with a new opportunity. Finally, to get the 14 in victory lane is just a weight off the shoulders. It’s been a long time. You start to question if you can get it done or not. To have it come at this place meant a lot. … This place is an acquired taste. When I first got here I was a duck out of water just like everybody else that starts here at first. I learned from Jimmie Johnson and learned from Jeff Gordon, sometimes the hard way, but nonetheless I learned over the years and finally put it to good use. To keep Kyle Busch, one of the best in the business behind you in those closing laps, the nerves were through the roof. It’s unbelievable how it all came true and to have everybody here.”

KYLE BUSCH – Finished 2nd: “We have to keep executing and doing a good job. That’s what we’re doing right now, it’s just not working our way. The M&M’s Caramel Camry was really close today. It wasn’t as good in practice. I thought we were better today than we were in practice, so that’s an improvement. … I was not expecting the 14 (Clint Bowyer) as one of those guys that was going to stay there and be one we had to race for the win. It’s funny. All of our finishes, for as good as we are in second place, as far ahead as we are of third, the leader is that far ahead of us. It seems like we’re kind of on our own island but then we get beat by somebody else on their own island. All is good, we just have to keep going.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished 3rd: “It was a good showing for us, for sure. I think the track tightened up a good bit there towards the end and we just got a little bit behind. Congrats to Clint for winning that race. It was fun racing with him for a bit, but for us to come out of here and lead a bunch of laps, win a stage and run third here at Martinsville – where I usually run terrible – that says a lot about this team and the preparation that they did getting ready for this race. That’s nice to have, we just need to be a little bit better.”

Martin Truex Jr. – Finished 4th: “It’s just so cool to see (Bowyer win a race). He’s worked so hard through a lot and has had a couple of tough seasons. And now he’s obviously with a great team. They have started the year off strong. He’s always been strong here at Martinsville. I know this place is special to him and it’s really cool to see him win today. … It’s cool to see him win with his kid here and everything. I couldn’t imagine the emotion he has right now. … It was definitely a difficult day for us – we struggled early, the second stage we really, really got bad and fell backwards, dropped like a rock. I think we barely stayed on the lead lap at the end of that second segment. … We made a bunch of (adjustments) and got better on the long run and made it back to the front of the field. … You never know how it’s going to go, but I’m proud of my guys for sticking with it. We were all pretty frustrated early on trying to figure it out, just kept our heads down and kept digging and came home with a great finish.”

Kevin Harvick – Finished 5th: “I didn’t mess it up today. We had a good car and saw how fast the SHR cars can be with the right driver in them here. This hasn’t been one of my better spots, but everything today went reasonably well and we were able to get Clint to Victory Lane and it was a good day for our Jimmy John’s/Busch Ford. … It’s been a long road for (Bowyer) and I’m really, really proud of him and (crew chief) Mike (Bugarewicz) and everybody for sticking with it because you could see that they had potential and they could do things that were gonna be good, so they just needed to get that year under their belt and have it right.”

Joey Logano – Finished 6th: “At the start of the race we may have made some bad changes over the snow break and weren’t really good compared to where we were in practice. The team made some good adjustments and got to the end there and were probably a third-place car, but it was too little, too late to get back up there; I drove back up to sixth. I was catching up to fifth and wanted a top-five stat because it at least sounds a little better than sixth, but we’ve been kind of stuck there in sixth or seventh no matter where we’re at right now, so we’ve got to find a little bit more speed. I’m proud of the fight and proud of everyone that keeps building these good, solid, consistent cars. Pit road is always consistent, so that’s nice. We’ve just got to go a little faster.”

Alex Bowman – Finished 7th: “It’s frustrating to say we are looking for a seventh, but much better than we have been the last couple of weeks and just happy for all my guys. They have worked really hard all off season and all year. We haven’t had the results we wanted, so to come here and finish stronger is definitely a step in the right direction. We’ve got a long way to go, but we are headed the right way. … We know we are off, but everybody is just real motivated and working harder. It’s a lot of guys that have won a lot of races and they want to get back to that winning feeling. So, they are all working really hard and got the best in the business back at the shop working to get better.”

A.J. Allmendinger – Finished 8th: “It was just a solid day. We were just missing just a little bit to go up there and run with the best of them. The last set of tires didn’t agree with the car, the car was bouncing around a lot. It’s unfortunate that our last set of tires were our worst, but that happens. We still got a top 10 out it, ran in the top 10 all day and was able to start 25th and pass a lot of cars. Solid day, what we needed at one of our better racetracks. These are the places we know that we have a better chance at and we have to take advantage of it. So, I would say I’m okay with eighth, I wish we could have got a little bit more at the end of the race there, but a solid day all around.”

Chase Elliott – Finished 9th: “I thought our last run was way better than what we had had before that.  But, we were just way too far off there for the majority of the day to expect that you are going to catch up by the end.  We have some work to do.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished 10th: “I tore up the car a little bit on the nose and bent up the splitter and the car wasn’t quite the same after that. I just made a mistake there.”

Denny Hamlin – Finished 12th: “He (Harvick) just got to me and I think bumped me three or four times. And then I was just bumping him back and he brake-checked me. I probably shouldn’t have brake-checked him in the first place. They were just some light bumps here and then slammed on the brakes here. So, classy. … We still have to work on a few things but this is definitely a step in the right direction from where we’ve been in the past couple of races here. Really happy with the FedEx Camry. We didn’t get a good finish like we probably deserved but all-in-all, a decent day. No mistakes. We’ll keep building from this.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 14th: “I worked all day to get my track position back after the first mistake, and then I made another. But our Mobil 1 Ford Fusion was fast, and while we needed to roll the corner a bit better all day, we still had a solid run. All of our finishes at Stewart-Haas have been solid this year, really showing that Mobil 1 oil technology performs on the track and Mobil 1 Annual Protection can do the same for our fans at home.”

Erik Jones – Finished 17th: “Martinsville is kind of a tough place for myself. Kind of ran where we thought would. Wanted to run better but we struggled a little bit all weekend. Just didn’t have the forward drive. Hopefully, it’ll be a little bit better for the fall (race at Martinsville) and finish toward the top 10.”

William Byron – Finished 20th: “The first couple of runs I thought we were decent.  Fifty lap runs seemed to be kind of our money spot, we needed a lot of 50-lap runs.  I think that once we got into the run we struggled a little bit and towards the end we kind of managed.  We just needed a couple of more short runs to kind of be able to gain some spots, but not bad.  Not what we wanted by far, but this is a fun racetrack and hopefully come back stronger in the fall.”

Michael McDowell – Finished 21st: “The long run was good, the short runs we struggle a little bit. We had a brake fan issue there that kept flipping the breaker, so I’m not sure if we got something stuck in it, but we didn’t have a whole lot of brakes left to challenge at the end. I don’t think it cost us a whole lot, maybe a couple spots, but every point matters. We still haven’t reached our potential, but we’re close to the Top 20, so not bad.”

David Ragan – Finished 25th: “We just started off way too slow. Our car wouldn’t roll the center and didn’t have good forward drive, so it made for a real long day. We raced hard and we just never caught any lucky breaks and we couldn’t make our car better, so we’ll definitely have to go back to the drawing board before the fall.”

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Can Adam Stevens, Kyle Busch ‘get mojo back’ at Bristol?

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Kyle Busch is known for speaking his mind. He says what he has to say whether things are good, bad, successful or frustrating.

That kind of attitude has rubbed off somewhat on his crew chief, Adam Stevens.

After Busch finished a disappointing 29th in Thursday’s fourth Cup race in 12 days, dropping Busch from 8th to 12th in the standings, Stevens was asked in a Friday teleconference where he would assess the progress of the No. 18 team since returning from the COVID-19 hiatus.

Like his driver, Stevens didn’t beat around the bush – no pun intended.

“Overall, it’s been a disappointing start, I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Stevens said. “You have stretches like that and I think we need to get our program a little better and then internally as a team we have to do better.”

In the four post-hiatus races, Busch finished 26th at Darlington, accidentally knocked Chase Elliott into the wall to finish second in the return trip to the Lady In Black, was fourth in the Coca-Cola 600, and then things just fell apart in Thursday’s race, his 29th-place finish being the second-worst finish this season (worst was 34th in the Daytona 500).

“In general, I would say we’re not as competitive as we’d want to be,” Stevens said. “We haven’t executed like we’ve wanted to.

“We’ve managed to get a couple good finishes in there, managed to get a couple poor finishes – the poor finishes were probably more poor than what they needed to be because of mistakes or circumstances we fell into during the race.”

A potential part of the problem with the No. 18 team – it’s a likely problem for most teams that have struggled since the return to racing – has been fatigue.

By the time Sunday’s race at Bristol is over, that will make five Cup races in 15 days. Plus, wih limitations on personnel numbers both at-track and at the JGR shop due to the pandemic, fatigue is apparent.

But after Sunday’s race, NASCAR Cup teams get a luxury of sorts: no midweek races this coming week and a chance for everyone to collectively catch their breath and rest up for nearly a week until the next race on June 7 at Atlanta.

“There’s quite a few of my crew guys who have been worn out here and spread pretty thin,” Stevens said. “They could really use a day or two off for sure, and they’re going to get that early in the week.

“We have a race in Atlanta with no practice, so the prep is down, but no midweek race … will make it a lot more palatable next week. Next week will probably be a week to get caught back up and assess where we’re at and maybe do a little bit more leg work on some of the future races so we can be a little bit more ahead. For certain there’s a large group of guys who need a day off.”

Sunday’s 500-lap race at Bristol offers a chance at redemption — if not a kind of home track advantage — for Busch and Stevens. In 29 Cup starts there, Busch has eight wins — including three in his last five starts there — plus 12 top-5 and 17 top-10 finishes.

If there ever was a place to right the listing No. 18 ship, the world’s fastest half-mile may just be the place.

“What makes Kyle (Busch) good at Bristol doesn’t change,” Stevens said. “He’s just so good at adapting what he’s doing behind the wheel to suit how the track is changing. Hopefully he’ll get to showcase more of that this weekend.

“It’s the track and the nuances of the track and how that changes and the fact that it changes is what makes KB shine there. He can make time on the bottom, in the PJ1, he can make time around the top when that’s the place to be and he’s not scared to move around and really is exceptional at getting through the lapped traffic as well.

“If you had to circle a place to get your mojo back, this would probably be it.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Forget practice, qualifying, ‘I just like to race’

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In the new normal of NASCAR, there are a lot of things drivers are getting used to.

From health screens when they get to the track to carrying their own helmets and other chores that previously were done by assistants, drivers are adapting.

One thing that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. likes is how, with the exception of one qualifying session for the Coca-Cola 600, that the first four Cup races back since the COVID-19 hiatus have not had practice or qualifying.

Stenhouse, to paraphrase late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, wants to “just race, baby, just race.”

Even though NASCAR’s race-only policy is predicated upon keeping things simple and staying safe in the pandemic, Stenhouse definitely has embraced the mindset of climbing in the car, firing the motor up and slamming on the gas pedal. No warm-ups, no testing different setups, no nothing. He just wants to chase the checkered flag.

“I just like to race, I like to be in the race car,” Stenhouse said in a media teleconference Friday. “Practice and qualifying doesn’t do it for me as much as getting out and competing in the race, as (opposed to being) in the car on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“Really there’s nothing like going out and racing. I enjoy racing as much as possible.”

Stenhouse, who finished fourth in Thursday’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, has also enjoyed NASCAR holding two of its first four Cup races back since the coronavirus hiatus in mid-week and prime time.

While that type of schedule makes it difficult and even grueling for crew chiefs and the rest of the team, count Stenhouse as hoping NASCAR moves forward with more mid-week races next season and beyond once coronavirus and the limitations it has placed upon the sport are gone.

“I like the Sunday-Wednesday schedules; I wish we could kind of keep doing that,” he said. “I’ve never been a fan of shortening the season because I just like to race.

“I’m going to try and sprinkle some more dirt races in when I can, if NASCAR lets me (he laughs). For me, I enjoy the racing aspect of it. I love being in the race car as much as possible. Like probably the other crew chiefs said, the guys at the shop definitely have a lot more work as far as getting cars ready week in and week out.

“So, that’s always been probably the biggest question mark of running these mid-week races to catch up our schedule is the toll that it’s taking on the crew guys. But it’s all been well received, they enjoy it and they love us back racing.”

In his first season with JTG-Daugherty Racing, Stenhouse has admittedly struggled. In the first eight races, the driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet has just two top-five finishes: Thursday night and third at Las Vegas.

Every other finish has been 20th or lower.

But Stenhouse sees light at the end of the tunnel. Ever since NASCAR returned from the pandemic hiatus, Stenhouse has seen improvement within his team that may not necessarily be reflected in the final result, but he definitely likes what he’s seeing from his team and the performance of his race car.

“Looking at the equipment that they have here, the people, the parts and pieces, the Hendrick power, the new Chevy Camaro body – I feel like those are all really good things to put together,” Stenhouse said. “Bringing my crew chief Brian Pattie over, bringing Mike Kelley over, with a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience to work in, they jumped right in. I felt like they’ve been working with these guys for a long time and it’s only been a short amount of time.

“So, I feel like we are definitely capable of running in the top 10. I feel like last night was definitely a night that we hit it right. We had a really good car and I hope we can continue to run top five and contend for wins.

“But I definitely feel like we can run top 10 with everything that we have right here. We have to do that – we have to limit my mistakes, limit the issues that we’ve had and just have good, smooth, solid nights, and I think we can run top-ten.

“I told the boys that we needed a good run going into Bristol, my favorite race track, knowing that I really like the way these cars drive. And if it drives as good at Bristol as it has at these other race tracks, I feel like we’re going to have a shot at a win. I wanted a good solid top-15 run, no issues, no mistakes and it turned out to be way better than that. So, we’re looking forward to hopefully carrying that momentum into Sunday.”

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Starting lineup for Sunday afternoon’s Cup race at Bristol

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Brad Keselowski and Aric Almirola will lead the field to the green flag in Sunday’s Cup Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Keselowski will start first and Almirola will start second.

The top five is completed by Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr., putting all three of Team Penske’s cars in the top five.

The field was determined through a random draw of the following groups:

  • Positions 1-12: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 13-24: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 25-36: Random draw from charter teams in those positions in owner points
  • Positions 37-40: Open teams in order of owners points

Click here for the starting lineup.

NASCAR Cup Series at Bristol

Race Time: 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (half-mile oval)

Length: 500 laps, 266.5 miles

Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: June 1 at Bristol (300 laps, 159.9 miles), 7 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Truck Series race: June 6 at Atlanta (130 laps, 200.02 miles), 1 p.m. ET on FS1

Chase Elliott ‘Sent it, for Judd’ in Charlotte Cup Series win

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A rollercoaster week for Chase Elliott ended Thursday night with him in Victory Lane for the second time in three days and for the first time this year in the Cup Series.

But Elliott’s win at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the seventh Cup victory of his career, had additional weight for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Not long after the race, Elliott posted a picture on Instagram of him celebrating on the frontstretch. At the bottom of the picture was a drawing of a character saying “send it.”

A sticker of that figure, which is a walrus, is located on the front bumper of Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet.

“Sent it, for Judd,” Elliott wrote in the Instagram post. “This ones for you brother, miss you my friend. That sticker will forever stay on the front of that 9 car, I promise y’all that.”

On Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. asked Elliott on NASCAR America at Home the meaning behind the sticker.

“Judd (Plott) was my best friend since I was a kid, he and I grew up together,” Elliott said. “His mom sang at my parent’s wedding and just my best friend since I can remember. Lost him last fall. That sticker is kind of remembrance of him. He had a tattoo on his leg of that little walrus and that was kind of his little logo.

“So I had a friend make up some stickers last fall after (Judd passed), and I just thought it’d be really cool to carry that moving forward. He was my best friend as long as I can remember and just always supportive and just felt like it’d be special to carry that for the rest of my career and always remember him and he was one of a kind and he was a genuinely good dude.”

The walrus decal and its placement on Elliott’s bumper is similar to one that can be found on the bumper of Jimmie Johnson’s car. It’s dedicated to his friend Blaise Alexander, an ARCA driver who was killed in a crash at Charlotte in 2001, and the 10 people who were killed in a Hendrick Motorsports plane crash in 2004.

The walrus decal isn’t the first time Elliott’s honored his late friend. Last November, he had a tribute to Judd on his nameplate above the driver-side window.

Following Thursday’s race, the Cup Series next competes Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway. Like the previous four races, it will be a one-day show. Elliott shared his thoughts on how a limited at-track schedule and condensed crew rosters are bringing the No. 9 team together.

“It’s brought an excitement back to it that I haven’t had in a little while, from the standpoint of I feel like I’m short-track racing again,” Elliott said. “I feel like it’s brought our team closer together because different guys on our team are having to do more jobs. Like (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson is) having to come off the box and catch tires during the pitstop. And that’s brought him closer to our pit crew. I’m having a couple more items to do and keep up with than what I had before and I think all that is bringing us closer together. And for me, it’s just been a lot of fun kind of condensing the group and doing more racing and less sitting around.”

The one-day show at Bristol has an added element to it. Without any prior track activity before Sunday’s green flag, the traction compound added to the lower lanes in the turns will be more difficult for drivers to navigate.

Elliott thinks it’s been “overlooked a little bit.”

“(The traction compound) does not like to be run on until it gets run in and those are two things that don’t go good together, right?” Elliott said. “Because it doesn’t have grip and nobody wants to run on it. But we all want it at the same time because we want another option. What I’ve noticed is it seems like it takes the leaders catching lap cars and forcing cars into a position that they don’t want to be in to start to run that stuff in. Until it gets run in, it’s really hard. It’s really slick. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing is just, you know, marrying up all those things, right? Do we have the splitter height, right? How slick is that stuff going to be? How long is it going to take it to come in. And when it does come in how long until it wears out and the top becomes the advantage because it typically does by the end of a race.

“But we typically have a full weekend to practice and qualifying and a Xfinity race. And a lot of times we don’t see that top line come dominant until late in the Cup race on Sunday. So I’m really curious to see how all those things play out.”