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Friday 5: Mark Martin still a dealmaker after all these years

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Matt Kenseth’s start with Roush Fenway Racing began with Mark Martin, and Kenseth’s return also was initiated by his former teammate.

It was Martin — two decades after he pushed car owner Jack Roush to sign the Wisconsin driver — who put things in motion for Kenseth to reunite with Roush Fenway Racing this week.

Kenseth will drive the No. 6 Ford in select races this season, sharing the ride with Trevor Bayne. Kenseth’s first race in the car will be May 12 at Kansas Speedway. Kenseth also will drive in the All-Star Race the following week. The rest of Kenseth’s schedule has not been announced.

Kenseth told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider after Wednesday’s announcement that Martin was the first to reach out to him about returning to Roush Fenway Racing.

“I’ve heard a lot from Mark over the last couple of weeks, last few weeks,” Kenseth told Snider. “Jack has meant a lot to Mark. Mark has meant a lot to the organization. He was instrumental in trying to get all the parties together to make something happen.’’

An intermediary was needed. Roush admitted he struggled to get past the hurt feelings from when Kenseth left the team after the 2012 season for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I still had a little bit of a rawness over the fact that he left me when he did,’’ Roush said. “We had another championship out there, I thought, that we could have had in short order. I missed that, so it took me a little while to get over it.”

Martin was just as forceful in getting Kenseth in the beginning. Martin sought Kenseth two decades ago before a drivers meeting at Talladega in what is now the Xfinity Series. They talked for several minutes.

“I knew where I came from,’’ Martin said, referring to Midwest short-track racing. “I knew where Rusty came from. I knew where Alan Kulwicki came from. I knew what it took to do what we did. I knew that Matt had been doing what we did. That was enough for me. That was enough for me to seek him out.

“I talked to him. I went straight from him to the trailer with Jack and I told Jack right then — because I don’t mess around — I said: “You’ve got to get this dude, we’ve got to get this guy signed. I know you don’t have a place for him, I know you don’t have anything to do for him, (but) you’ve got to get this guy. He’s the guy.’ ‘’

Kenseth signed a testing contract with Roush before the 1998 season and ran five Cup races in 1999 for the team. He went on to win Cup Rookie of the Year honors in 2000 and the 2003 Cup title.

“He delivered something I was never able to do – Jack Roush a Cup championship,’’ Martin said of Kenseth. “That means a lot. To me that is big. In other words, it feels good to be right.’’

Now, Martin looks to be right again.

2. Restrictor-plate nuances

After leading a race-high 118 laps in the Daytona 500 and finishing seventh, it would have been easy for Ryan Blaney to look back upon the season-opening race with regret.

Blaney, who also won his qualifying race at Daytona that week, admits he watched the 500 twice that night before moving on.

“You can’t dwell on things too much,’’ Blaney said. “If you dwell on that, you’re taking your mind off the important things like what’s upcoming.’’

But there’s one thing Blaney is looking back upon. Daytona Speedweeks was the first time for the no ride-height rule at restrictor-plate tracks and it made an impact.

“Honestly, we were learning new things because those cars drafted a lot differently with the no ride-height rule,’’ Blaney said. “It was harder to be the leader and block lanes and runs were massive and your car didn’t handle as good.’’

The three major crashes in the Daytona 500 all started in the top three and were a result of a car getting a big run or blocking. Cars made big runs throughout the race and that made it more difficult to time blocks.

“I’m sure some drivers talked about it was hard to make aggressive moves and make sharp turns because the cars were all over the place,’’ Blaney said. “Now I think they’re going to change that up a little bit to where our cars can drive better. You have to have speed, obviously, but you have to be able to make sharp turns and moves and we saw some wrecks in the 500 because guys couldn’t do that or they tried and it didn’t work. I think we will have a better idea of this package, things like that this weekend.’’

But Blaney also admits that leading still could be challenging at Talladega.

“Talladega is just a lot wider, there’s more room to make moves but that is tougher because if you’re the leader you’ve got to block more in spots so that is kind of hard, just depends on what spot you’re in,’’ he said.

3. Waiting to celebrate

Hendrick Motorsports continues to seek its 250th Cup win. This is only the third time since 2002 that Hendrick Motorsports has gone so deep into the season without a victory.

Hendrick needed 11 races to score its first victory of the season in 2012. The team needed 10 races to score its first victory in 2002. Sunday’s race at Talladega marks the 10th race of the year.

Hendrick Motorsports’ last win came in July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Kasey Kahne — 25 races ago.

4. For the cash

Saturday’s Xfinity race is another Dash 4 Cash race — meaning no Cup regulars in the field. This is the first time the Dash 4 Cash event has been held at Talladega

Those racing for the $100,000 bonus are Elliott Sadler, Christopher Bell, Matt Tifft and Austin Cindric.

5. Five winners

So far only five drivers have won in Cup this season — Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon and Clint Bowyer.

This is the fewest number of winners in the first nine races of a season since 1997 when the winners were Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Mark Martin.

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Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski see title hopes end in Kansas

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — They had won four of the last six races entering Sunday’s event at Kansas Speedway.

But Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney won’t be racing for a championship. That leaves only Joey Logano left at Team Penske to race for a championship. 

Keselowski and Blaney were eliminated from title contention (along with Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman). Blaney failed to advance by six points. He was the closest of those eliminated to the cutoff line.

Blaney’s title hopes faded after he hit the wall while running third with about 60 laps left in the race.

“Sorry, trying too hard,” Blaney radioed his team after the incident.

He soon fell back and finished seventh.

“Obviously it was a mistake I made trying to work hard to catch those guys and I pushed too hard and got in the fence,” Blaney said. “It is all my fault.

“Whether it would have worked out for us or not, I don’t know. I don’t think we had the speed (Chase Elliott) or (Kevin Harvick) had. (Elliott) was super fast. I don’t know. I messed up and cost us a shot. The whole 12 team deserves better than that. That was unfortunate on my part.”

Keselowski didn’t have one incident that held him back. He just wasn’t fast enough. Keselowski led two different times for 26 laps but that was because he stayed out longer while others pitted during a green-flag cycle and moved to the lead. He was never fast enough to race his way to the front.

“I would say about the end of that first stage it was pretty obvious that we needed something after I saw some things on the other cars,” Keselowski said. “We needed something to step up but it just wasn’t there. We just weren’t as good today as we were (Saturday) and I am not sure why.

“Everyone else seemed to find a little from practice and we were about the same, maybe a little worse than we were in practice. I am proud of what we did down the stretch of the year. We won three races and did all that. I feel like we can go win Martinsville next week, so I am excited about that but of course the ultimate goal is to win a championship and we won’t have an opportunity to do that this year.”

What drivers said after the Cup race at Kansas

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Chase Elliott — Winner: “Yeah it was awesome. I just enjoy racing with (Kyle Busch). I obviously got lucky with Kevin (Harvick) having his penalty, I thought we were really, really equally matched there. I wish we could have raced him straight up obviously, but had a great car today. … It’s been a great couple of months so we’ve got to keep it rolling. This is the time of year that counts.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 2nd: “We got too tight there on that long run. I knew it was going to get tight, it was just a matter of whether or not I could get there and get by him (Chase Elliott) first. Running the top like that, it just inherently creates tight in the race car. The sooner you get up there, the longer you’re up there and it just gets that much tighter. Chase did a good job of having that big of a gap that he didn’t have to go up there so early and he had a little bit better tire there when I got to him and he was able to move down a little bit and keep rolling with the speed. I just couldn’t do it that way. We come home second today. That’s just kind of all there is it to it. I didn’t think we were going to have to a second place car. When we here at the test, the 9 (Chase Elliott) was actually right on line with us – maybe even a tick better at times during the test when we were here, so they’ve had a fast car here for a while.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 3rd: “Fought the balance a little bit early in the race, but we made it better and better throughout the race. I felt like the last run especially was our best run handling wise. Just needed the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) to catch the No. 9 (Chase Elliott) to maybe battle him some, but as he got closer he kind of lost the air on his nose. Just wish I could have stayed in second there after the green flag cycles and not let Kyle (Busch) get by. I felt like maybe if I could have been behind Chase there at the end with the line he was running maybe I could have done something with him. But, all in all a good effort today. We did everything we could just came up a couple of spots short”

Erik Jones — Finished 4th: “It was good. We had a really fast car. Our Craftsman Camry was I think a car that could have contended for the win. We just struggled on pit road. We lost a lot of spots and it just took a long time to get them back. That long green run helped us at the win and we were able to pick them up and get back towards the front, but not enough time. Good car. Just got to keep working and keep getting closer.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 5th: “It was definitely a tough day – a blue collared day for sure. We worked hard. The guys never gave up on the car, they just kept working on it for me and I just kept trying to get all I could out of it. Pit crew really saved our butts today man, they were unbelievable. That’s definitely something you need going down the stretch here for a championship and we’ll regroup and go to Martinsville next week and try to go get a win.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 6th: “I would say about the end of that first stage it was pretty obvious that we needed something after I saw some things on the other cars. We needed something to step up but it just wasn’t there. We just weren’t as good today as we were yesterday and I am not sure why. Everyone else seemed to find a little from practice and we were about the same, maybe a little worse than we were in practice. I am proud of what we did down the stretch of the year. We won three races and did all that. I feel like we can go win Martinsville next week so I am excited about that but of course the ultimate goal is to win a championship and we won’t have an opportunity to do that this year.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 7th: “Obviously it was a mistake I made trying to work hard to catch those guys and I pushed too hard and got in the fence. It is all my fault. Whether it would have worked out for us or not, I don’t know. I don’t think we had the speed the 9 or 4 had. The 9 was super fast. I don’t know. I messed up and cost us a shot. I want to thank Wrangler and Menards and Ford for doing what they do. The whole 12 team deserves better than that. That was unfortunate on my part.”

Joey Logano — Finished 8th: “We did a great job this round with two top-fives and a top-10. A stage win here today and we finished third in the other stage. We were scoring points which is good enough to get you through these rounds but I feel like this next round we are going to have to get a win to get through. Maybe they will have enough issues that you can build up enough points but I think we need to win. It was a solid weekend with the pole and stage win, I am proud of that, we just have to focus hard on getting more.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 9th: “We had to fix damage throughout the day. I’m a little frustrated. We had a better car than that. I don’t know that we had a race-winning car. I thought the No. 9 (Chase Elliott) was super good on long runs. We were, I thought, much better than him on the short runs. But on the long runs he just ate us up. Congrats to him. We’ll move on to next week.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 10th: “I will take it, another top-10 finish today. Really proud of my team. We had another fast Ford and the guys did a good job too. Now we advance on to the next round and at this point I just feel like we have nothing to lose almost. I feel like we are playing with house money. We are relaxed and looking forward to these next three weeks, they should be fun for us.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 11th: “I’ll be honest. I didn’t feel like we had a very good Dow Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 all weekend, so I am proud of this team and our 11th-place finish at Kansas Speedway today. It was hard-fought. We weren’t very fast from the time we unloaded from the hauler on Friday, so we will have to work on that going forward. We started off Sunday’s race with a tight-handling condition, but the Dow Racing Team worked hard on adjustments all race long. By Stage 2, we had solid lap times, and by Stage 3, we were able to enter the top 10. I’m proud of this team’s hard work all weekend.”

Kevin Harvick — Finished 12th: “Today wasn’t great from my standpoint. Our Busch Lite Ford was really fast and leading the race there and I got a speeding penalty. That was my fault. I tried to get a little too much and wound up going too fast. We will take it one week at a time. We have had fast cars and whether it is speeding on pit road or flat tires or valve stems or fuel, we haven’t put together a full day except for Richmond. Hopefully we have gotten all that out of our system and we can go to Martinsville and start off good.” 

Clint Bowyer — Finished 13th: “It was enough, barely. We were lucky really. It was ugly. I wanted to be better than that. I don’t know. I don’t know what I am missing here. It isn’t my guys. They are giving me good cars. They are fast. I just can’t figure out how to get around this damn place. I definitely have to be better than that. I knew this was going to be the one and we were lucky enough to get through Talladega and get some points going into this with a little bit of insurance and I am damn glad we did.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 15th: “All weekend long our Caterpillar Chevrolet favored long green-flag runs. Our balance was pretty good, but for whatever reason we just lacked take-off and overall speed. Our biggest issue was in traffic. Our car just plowed but we kept up with it as the track changed throughout the race. We ran as high as 10th and as low as 16th. crew chief Luke Lambert did a great job keeping up with the track. We just needed a little more speed to be a force to contend with the top-10 cars consistently. There’s four more to go so we’ll keep doing our best to close out the season.”

Kurt Busch — Finished 18th: “I am really happy. It is exciting for us. It is our goal to win the championship. We are an elite eight team when we started Daytona and here we are, we did it. It was a rough day in the pits and on the track but we had enough points from the Roval and our stage races. It was a rough day and we need to put it quickly behind us. We are back on even ground. We are in the top-8 and Martinsville is the path to the championship down in Homestead.”

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 22nd: “I just ran too close to the wall, I guess, in (Turns) 1 and 2 and it just brushed the wall and it sucked me in. That was it. I didn’t think I did anything different than other laps. I’d been running really close to it. I just did something wrong on that lap and hit on the right side and ended our good run.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 25th: “This was a benchmark race for our Geico Camaro ZL1 team. We didn’t have the performance that we wanted here at Kansas Speedway back in the spring. Our cars have evolved a lot since then, and we’ve been working hard on our intermediate program. We came back here this weekend wanting show improvements from where we were in May, and we did that. There’s still more work to be done, but little gains will become big gains as this team keeps grinding. We have four more races left this season, and we are working as hard as we can to get everything out of them.”

William Byron — Finished 38th: “That was the best car we’ve had. Usually, that seems like how it works. But we were making pretty good ground. We came out after our green flag stop, in a decent spot. We were kind of mired between the two guys we were before, so overall the car was good and the motor just blew-up. But, there’s nothing you can do but look forward to the next race.”

Clint Bowyer advances to Round of 8 after ‘ugly’ day at home track

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Clint Bowyer had “enough, barely” on Sunday to advance to the third round of the Cup playoffs after an “ugly” day at Kansas Speedway, his home track.

Bowyer, who finished 13th, said his team was “lucky” in the elimination race. He exits as the fifth seed in the Round of 8 with 4,015 points and joins his three Stewart-Haas Racing teammates in the round.

He advances after he had to race his way into the Round of 12 at the Charlotte Roval.

“I wanted to be better than that,” Bowyer said. “I don’t know what I am missing here. It isn’t my guys. They are giving me good cars. They are fast. I just can’t figure out how to get around this damn place. I definitely have to be better than that. I knew this was going to be the one and we were lucky enough to get through Talladega and get some points going into this with a little bit of insurance and I am damn glad we did.”

Bowyer started the race in 14th and managed a seventh-place finish in Stage 1. But he finished outside the top 10 in Stage 2.

On a Lap 168 restart, Bowyer suffered minor damage to his left-front fender after he made contact with Jimmie Johnson.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver could have had an uglier day.

On Lap 213, Bowyer pitted. During his stop, the tire taken off his right rear was rolled back to the pit wall near the front of his No. 14 Ford. It then rolled into the adjacent pit box.

It was not called as an uncontrolled tire penalty.

A NASCAR spokesperson said tires are allowed to cross into the adjacent pit boxes on the inside of the car as long as they do not impede another car or go passed the halfway point of the adjacent stall. 

Had a car been pitting in front of Bowyer or if it had rolled past the pit stall number painted on the pit wall, it would have been a penalty.

Had he been penalized, Bowyer likely would have lost a lap. Bowyer finished as the last car on the lead lap. Kurt Busch finished 18th as the last car one lap down. The penalty would not have been enough to keep Bowyer from advancing.

Bowyer leaves Kansas with just one top 10 in his last 11 starts at the track. Now the series returns to Martinsville Speedway, where Bowyer ended a 190-race winless streak in the spring.

“For whatever reason Kansas isn’t my best track,” Bowyer said. “I am way more comfortable on the short tracks. If I can put together Martinsville and Phoenix like I am capable of and run Texas like we are capable of, I think we can be in Homestead (for the championship). Now it is getting down to the nitty-gritty. Now it is eight good teams. There are 16 good teams but there are eight damn good teams. All eight of these teams have found victory lane and things like that. Now you are starting to pick up the pace or go home.”

Bowyer didn’t get to spend much time ruminating on his day. He quickly made the short trip to Arrowhead Stadium to watch the Kansas City Chiefs compete on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

Points after the Cup race at Kansas

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Kyle Busch closed the gap on Chase Elliott in the closing laps, but lost ground when he had to fend off a charging Kyle Larson. Busch finished second.

Elliott scored his second win of Round 2 of the playoffs to increase his bonus points total to 18.

Kevin Harvick won Stage 2 and appeared to be on his way to victory lane until a speeding penalty brought him down pit road for a second time. He rebounded to finish 12th.

“At times it was bad and not much fun,” Martin Truex Jr. told NBC. He finished fifth in the race after ending Stage 1 outside the top 10 and 10th in Stage 2.

Clint Bowyer survived Kansas with a 13th-place finish on a track that has not been welcoming in recent years.

Joey Logano dominated early. He won Stage 1 and finished third in Stage 2. Logano faded at the end of the race after slow pit stop to finish eighth.

Kurt Busch had an uncontrolled tire on Lap 123. He lost a lap while serving his penalty and could not make it back up. He advanced to the Round of 8 by six points with an 18th-place finish.

Aric Almirola finished sixth in Stage 1. He ran well in Stage 2, but an uncontrolled tire penalty kept him from scoring points there. Almirola finished 10th.

Eliminated from playoff contention

Brad Keselowski failed to earn points in either of the first two stages. His sixth-place finish was not enough to advance.

Ryan Blaney challenged Logano fiercely in the first two stages, finishing third and second. He scraped the wall twice while battling Larson in the final stage and fell six points behind the cutoff with a seventh-place finish.

Kyle Larson surged late in the race and climbed to third. He was practically in an must-win situation and came up two spots short.

Alex Bowman was mathematically eliminated entering the Kansas race unless he won. He tagged the wall early in Stage 1 and never contended for victory – ultimately settling for ninth in the rundown.

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