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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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Long: Even through pain, a smile emerges from Kaulig Racing’s Chris Rice

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Chris Rice punctuates tweets with #Happy and whatever day of the week it is. Co-workers hold him accountable if he doesn’t smile because he’s always encouraging people to smile. His goal is to make everyone feel good.

Even when he hurts.

The last few months have tested Rice, president of Kaulig Racing, in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

Nick Harrison, crew chief for Justin Haley’s team, died July 21. The team’s hauler crashed Wednesday on the way to Kansas Speedway for Saturday’s Xfinity race (3 p.m. ET on NBC). A few hours later, Rice found out his family’s dog, Kiki, was missing.

“The racing is minimal to what I’ve been through this year,” he said.

Still, Rice had reason to smile this week. Both the driver and backup driver in the team’s hauler escaped serious injuries. And Kiki was found a day later about 4 miles away.

Rice says faith has helped him through such challenging times. His voice softens when he talks about how he found out Harrison had suddenly died. Rice got a call from Harrison’s phone at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, a day after the New Hampshire Xfinity race.

‘When I picked up the phone and it was not Nick, it changed my life,” Rice said.

On the phone was one of Harrison’s friends. He told Rice that Harrison had been found dead.

Rice helped Kaulig Racing grieve for Harrison while continuing with the season and the demands a racing schedule presents. His message often was that each day will get better.

Then come days like Wednesday.

The team’s hauler driver had a medical issue and the truck ran through a guardrail, went down an embankment and crashed into a wooded area in Western North Carolina.

Rice went to the crash site. Seeing the overturned hauler and debris strewn, stunned Rice. The windshield was knocked out. Wheels turned backward. The hauler smashed.

“The shock of seeing how bad it was got to me more than anything else,” he said. “The joy is that (the drivers) lived through this.

“We can replace all that other stuff. The one thing we cannot replace is life.”

Later that day, Kiki, a 12-year-old lobsta obsta that Rice and his family rescued 11 years ago, went missing.

“When I was looking for my dog, we walked and we walked and we cried and we cried,” Rice said.

Any pet is special but few are a life saver. That’s Kiki.

Rice’s wife, Tammy, is allergic to shellfish. She had an allergic reaction one night about a year ago while asleep.

“(Kiki) woke my wife up,” Rice said. “Just kept beating on her, woke her up. If not, should have never woken up.”

Tammy posted on Facebook that they had lost the dog this week. The next day, they got a call that Kiki had been found.

Even then, Rice had his doubts. There had been some foxes and coyotes in their neighborhood at times.

When they arrived at the shelter, the dog was Kiki.

It was another reason for Rice to smile.

“I don’t know what day is coming next,” Rice said. “I take what we have today and try to make the best of it. When I wake up tomorrow, I’m glad I woke up and I am going to help the next person.”

 

Daniel Hemric fastest in final practice; Kevin Harvick second

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Daniel Hemric turned the fastest lap Friday in the final Cup practice at Kansas Speedway, turning a 177.830 mph lap in his No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

Kevin Harvick was second followed by Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski (who paced the first practice) and Ryan Blaney.

Hemric has yet to announce a ride for 2020 after RCR announced last month that the rookie would be replaced by Tyler Reddick next season.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Suarez and Aric Almirola rounded out the top 10.

Here are the rankings speeds of the other playoff drivers: Denny Hamlin 12th; Alex Bowman 15th; Joey Logano 16th; Clint Bowyer 19th; Chase Elliott 20th; and William Byron 22nd.

Click here to see where things stand in the playoffs standings entering Sunday’s second-round cutoff race at Kansas.

Click here for speeds from the final practice at Kansas.

Click here for the speeds during the first Cup practice of the weekend at Kansas.

Ryan Preece praises team for its work after hauler fire

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Ryan Preece praised his team for converting teammate Chris Buescher’s backup car into Preece’s primary car Friday after the hauler carrying Preece’s cars and equipment caught fire this week en route to Kansas Speedway.

“I know some of the guys haven’t had much sleep, very proud of them,” Preece said.

The team’s hauler pulled over near New Columbia, Illinois, on Thursday after a fire in the rear axle area that spread to the hauler. A team spokesperson told NBC Sports that crew chief Eddie Pardue and a couple of team members flew there to take what could be salvaged before driving to Kansas City.

The team spokesperson said that the lockers and uniforms in the hauler were heavily damaged. Both cars had damage with the backup car suffering smoke damage.

NASCAR allowed JTG Daugherty Racing to enter the garage at 8 a.m. ET Friday — five hours before the garage was scheduled to open — and allowed members from both JTG Daugherty teams to work on the car. Preece said he was there with the team when it arrived and worked on the interior as the crew converted the car.

“We’re in it as a team,” Preece said. “I wasn’t going to show up later in the afternoon. I wanted them to know that I was right there with them. I wanted to help in every way I could.”

Preece said his car was loose in the first practice session Friday at Kansas Speedway. He was 32nd on the speed chart in that session, making it on track about 10 minutes after practice began.

Brad Keselowski fastest in first practice at Kansas; Kyle Busch makes big save

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Brad Keselowski turned the fastest lap with a minute remaining in Friday afternoon’s first Cup practice at Kansas Speedway.

The 176.499-mph lap by the No. 2 Ford of Team Penske nipped a 176.389 mph lap by the No. 10 Ford of Aric Almirola.

Daniel Suarez was third, followed by Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney. Kurt Busch, Paul Menard, Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick and Daniel Hemric rounded out the top 10.

Here’s how other playoff drivers fared during the practice:

Kyle Larson 11th; Joey Logano 13th; Clint Bowyer 15th; William Byron 20th; Alex Bowman 21st; Kyle Busch (who had an impressive save; video below) 22nd; Chase Elliott 23rd.

Click here to see where things stand in the playoffs standings entering Sunday’s second-round cutoff race at Kansas.

Click here for the speeds during the first Cup practice of the weekend at Kansas.