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Matt Crafton hopes dirt racers show Truck regulars respect at Eldora

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Who isn’t playing in the dirt tonight?

That’s almost an easier question to ask than who will be competing in the Camping World Truck Series’ sixth annual Eldora Dirt Derby.

There will be 39 drivers competing for spots in the 32-truck field, including Cup drivers Ryan Newman and Ty Dillon. Then those lucky drivers will set out to claim Eldora’s Golden Shovel.

Among the series regulars is Matt Crafton.

The two-time series champion is the only former Derby winner in the field. The ThorSport Racing driver claimed his only win of 2017 at Eldora, a reward for having set out to better himself at dirt racing the last few years.

Matt Crafton (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

“I feel it’s difficult,” Crafton said Monday in media teleconference. “But a lot of the dirt guys probably don’t think so. I came from an asphalt background, and I’ve raced some dirt in the last four or five years just because I knew we were going to Eldora, and last year I just went and bought my own dirt car, just bought my own modified and went and raced, oh, 12, 15 races last year and put a lot of focus on it just because I thought that was such a cool race to be able to win and get that golden shovel and that trophy and say we won on asphalt, we won on dirt, we’ve won some other places.  So that was a very sweet victory for sure.”

He’s winless this season, as he was entering this race in 2017, but Crafton doesn’t see “why we can’t” become the first repeat winner of NASCAR’s only national level race on dirt.

“We definitely should be able to if we put ourselves in the right position,” Crafton said. “There’s got to be a lot of the dirt ringers, if you want to call them that, and the guys that race dirt every week.”

Who are some of the dirt “ringers” who look to prevent Crafton’s repeat bit?

There’s Stewart Friesen, the dirt modified winner turned Truck regular who finished runner-up to Crafton last season.

Then there’s 63-year-old John Provenzano, a dirt specialist making his Truck debut.

Dirt modified drivers Kyle Strickler and RJ Otto will also make their series debuts with smaller teams.

“They’re going to be very tough, and hopefully they race with respect and don’t tear you up,” Crafton said. “That’s some of the things that I worry about. A lot of them are coming out here, and it’s going to be their one shot to drive a truck, and they don’t get to go race Martinsville or any other place, and they’re going to get to come to Eldora, and hopefully they respect us like we would respect them if we came into their series on one of their big shows.”

Logan Seavey stands by his truck during practice for the  Eldora Dirt Derby at Eldora Speedway. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Crafton may as well have been talking about Logan Seavey.

The 21-year-old native of Sutter, California, is a Toyota Racing Development driver set for his NASCAR debut tonight with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Sutter is the 2017 POWRi Lucas Oil National Midget Series champion and currently leads the point standings while driving for Keith Kuntz Motorsports.

“I guess I was the next guy in line,” Seavey told NBC Sports. “I was sitting there talking with Jack (Irving)(Toyota Racing Development’s Director of Team & Support Services) one day and he just randomly said, ‘Hey, do you want to run Eldora?’ Of course the answer is ‘Yes.'”

Seavey has never competed in a race at Eldora and wasn’t expecting to until later this year.

“I think for all disciplines of dirt racing Eldora is the Mecca of racing,” Seavey said. “It’s definitely a huge one on the bucket list and like I said before, I never really expected my first time there to be in a Truck. I would have more thought a midget or a sprint car.”

Seavey, who is driving the No. 51 Toyota, once thought the idea of competing in NASCAR as a “pretty far fetched goal” until TRD came calling.

“That path became a lot more clear,” Seavey said. “It’s definitely a possibility now. It’s definitely one of my goals, try to make it racing in NASCAR.”

He barely had time in recent weeks to prepare for his first NASCAR race due to his busy midget schedule that included six races (and one win) in four states over 10 days. That resulted in roughly four hours spent at KBM in two separate visits.

But his resources in preparation included Christopher Bell, who earned his first Truck Series win in 2015 at Eldora while racing for KBM.

“He had lot of advice to give me this week,” Seavey said. The biggest piece of advice? “I think it’s just find your limit in practice. You don’t want to have to run real hard in the race and not know how the truck’s going to react. That’s something that happened to him last year. He ran hard in the middle of the race and spun out and wrecked his truck. I think you’re going to have to find your limits in practice … just get as comfortable as possible. That way you can limit your mistakes throughout the race and hopefully come out of there with a clean truck.”

In two practice sessions Tuesday night at Eldora, Seavey placed 14th in the first and sixth in the final session, where he also had the second-best 10-lap average behind Crafton.

Seavey said there is “definitely a fine line” when it comes to racing his own race and competing for the win against series regulars who are also gunning for points.

“At the end of the day if you want to make it in this sport, you gotta run up front and you gotta win races,” Seavey said. “I think that’s your No. 1 goal, to run up front and win. You obviously want to gain the respect of the other racers, especially if you’re hoping to compete in the series later. But at the same time, you might not get to that series if you don’t run hard and try to win. … But you obviously got to do it with respect and not make other people too mad and make yourself look bad.”

Chase Elliott pleased by ‘best shot to win to date’ but knows work remains

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – He was the only driver to outduel the dominant No. 2 Ford of race winner Brad Keselowski. He had his best shot to win a race in more than five months. He fortified the allegiance of fans at the NASCAR Cup series’ shortest track, which already has been a special place early in his career.

Ultimately, though, Chase Elliott knew a runner-up finish Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, one of only six short-track races on the circuit, will have a limited shelf life.

Hendrick Motorsports still must prove it can excel at the larger tracks such as Texas Motor Speedway that make up the bulk of the schedule and play a large role in determining the championship.

“From here? No,” Elliott said with a smile and a slight chuckle when asked if there were any momentum that could carry over to the 1.5-mile speedway that’s next on the schedule. “No.”

How about fueling some optimism that his No. 9 Chevrolet will be faster at Texas?

“I sure hope so,” he said.

There should at least be a more positive vibe in this week’s team debriefs after Elliott led 49 laps for his first top five since his Oct. 21 victory at Kansas Speedway. It also was Hendrick’s first top five of 2019 through six races (the longest the organization has gone without a top five to start a season since 2000).

It was only the second race of the past 10 that the No. 9 Chevrolet has led.

“We had a really, really solid car and this was the best shot we had to win to date this season, so when you have cars like that and performances like we did today, you really need to capitalize,” Elliott said. “And obviously with our struggle last week at Fontana (where he finished 11th), that was a bummer, so to come back and be able to run inside the top five all day long and be as competitive as the winner of the race was an improvement.

“And ultimately this is an important racetrack so coming back here in the fall, hopefully we can run like we did today, maybe a little better, and hopefully we’re still part of the deal to make it matter.”

Keselowski took the lead for the final time when his pit crew got him out ahead of Elliott under caution on Lap 374. He never passed Elliott under green, and Keselowski figured he wouldn’t after Elliott took the lead from him with 175 laps remaining shortly after a restart.

“I thought Chase was probably the best car most of the day,” said Keselowski, who led 446 of 500 laps. “I thought that might be the end of our day, but I was able to learn a few things from him and kind of dissect his strengths and weaknesses and make some adjustments of our own and come back out and be a little bit better for it. Pit crew did an excellent job gaining or retaining our track position all day, which is critical here at this racetrack.

“We were able to keep our track position, and that was so, so key to being able to win today because I think Chase, if he’d have been out front that run, he would have drove away from the field with what I saw from his car.”

Brad Keselowski held off Chase Elliott for his second win of the season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Elliott slipped to third behind Keselowski and Kyle Busch on his last stop under yellow. He made a nifty move to retake second on the outside after Busch ran into Keselowski and slowed with 43 laps remaining.

He was making ground in the final 10 laps, but aerodynamics (rarely a factor at Martinsville but in play because of this year’s high downforce) seemed to factor into his inability to reach Keselowski’s bumper.

“I tried to root him off the bottom at the beginning of the run,” Elliott said. “That was probably my best shot. I felt like I was a little better than him taking off. Then I thought he got a little better than me through the midstage and then I feel like we kind of evened out.

“That one run I was able to get by him, it was definitely a slight advantage to being out front. Moved up with about five (laps) to go, was making a little time. But obviously not enough time and was just trying to get back to his bumper. Thought maybe I could root him out of the way. It was going to be really hard to drive up next to him and pass him. I was just going to have to get to his bumper and play some games and hope it went my way.”

At least there was hope of being in the game when NASCAR returns to Southwest Virginia in seven months for the opener of the Round of 8, which Elliott nearly won in 2017.

“Have to just improve and when we come back here,” he said. “This is an important race if you’re in the hunt, so hopefully we are.”

Brad Keselowski says ‘wins are huge’ in keeping, retaining sponsors

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Brad Keselowski was thrilled with his second Cup victory of the season, but the victory was more meaningful because the car’s sponsor, Reese/Draw Tite, serves as a primary sponsor for only two races.

“We’re fighting so hard to keep sponsors on our car and we have some gaps (in 2020) to fill there,” said Keselowski, whose other victory this season was in Atlanta with sponsor Autotrader.

“When we win with some of those partners, it’s a really big deal for us,” Keselowski added.

Reese/Draw Tite will be back as the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car later this season. The brands were on Keselowski’s car twice in 2018 — at the first Martinsville race and Richmond playoff race.

Reese/Draw Tite sponsored Keselowski’s Truck Series team beginning in 2012. Reese/Draw Tite signed a multi-year sponsor deal with Team Penske in 2018.

“The wins are huge,” Keselowski said in attracting and retaining sponsors. “You have to win. The market loves winners, as it should. That’s what you would like it to be. You would like it to be about winning and sponsors that are connected to that. In my mind, that’s the way it should be.

“I didn’t come into this sport with a name that was just going to give me sponsors and the biggest sponsors out of the gate. With that in mind, our team has to win. (Car owner Roger Penske) is great because he’s so smart with these business-to-business deals. But even that, that’s really hard on him, and he doesn’t deserve that full burden. He’s worked his butt off, and he shouldn’t have to be in every board meeting and trying to solidify the deals, and I recognize that for him, and I’m proud of the efforts that he does put in, and the last thing I want to do is make him do more of them, right?

“So with that in mind, I hope that we can continue to attract the high‑level sponsors we need to be competitive at this level, and the best way I know how to do that is wins like today.”

Keselowski, who led 446 of 500 laps Sunday, says he plays a role in helping with sponsorship.

“It would be a lot easier to just be the race car driver, but I accept the fact that if we want to have the funding we need to be able to compete with the Toyotas specifically, who are certainly very high up on the funding level, we have to generate those revenues and those funds, and that’s the way we’re going to get back to Victory Lane,” Keselowski said. “You need that to be able to afford the engineering, to be able to afford the pit crew and still pay me to drive. So winning is very, very important.”

Keselowski also said he has five unfunded races to fill in the Xfinity Series this season that he hopes to be able to run but won’t without sponsors.

Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin salvage top 10s after pit road penalties

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Clint Bowyer places at least some of the blame on his two pit road speeding penalties Sunday at Martinsville Speedway with what happened Saturday at the half-mile short track.

Bowyer, who placed seventh in a failed attempt to defend his STP 500 win, would like better pit road conditions to work with.

“It’s so hard to practice pit road speed,” a dispirited Bowyer said on pit road after his second top 10 of the season. “You’ve got (Gander Outdoors) Trucks on pit road when we’re trying to practice that. I’m not making any excuses. When you’re trying to pinch it for every little thing out of it. It’s hard this week to practice pit road speed because of all the stuff on pit road.”

After he placed sixth in Stage 1 and eighth in Stage 2, Bowyer’s No. 14 was caught speeding the first time on Lap 314 after he pitted from third place. Bowyer was able to make it up to 13th in the next 60 laps.

Then on his next trip to pit road, Bowyer was again dinged for speeding.

“I guess we need to get our stuff together on being on the same page with that pit road stuff,” Bowyer said. “That’s such an important thing, such a big part of this style of racing where track position is everything. We push it to the limit.”

Before he pitted for a final time with just under 55 laps to go, Bowyer was told by crew chief Mike Bugarewicz they had figured out he wasn’t running close enough to the pit wall in the section the penalties occurred.

Bowyer didn’t speed and restarted eighth.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver claimed his first top 10 since he placed fifth at Atlanta.

“I don’t think anybody had anything for (race winner Brad Keselowski),” Bowyer said. “But I think we were a top-three car for sure. We just kept beating ourselves.”

Bowyer wasn’t the only driver to salvage a decent finish after a pit road penalty.

After an uncontrolled tire penalty on Lap 265, Denny Hamlin roared back to finish fifth for the second time in the last three races.

“We lost a lot of spots on pit road even before that, and then just went to the back like we do most races and came back to fifth,” Hamlin said. “When you don’t have the best car, you have to pretty much execute perfectly. We didn’t, but it wouldn’t have mattered because the best car didn’t falter.”
Hamlin had stage finishes of fourth and third before the pit penalty occurred
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has two consecutive top fives at Martinsville and 14 in his 27 career starts.
“We kind of got back to where we kind of belonged, and that was the end of it,” Hamlin said. “We have to get a little better with the handling to handle right where (Keselowski is) at.”

Results, points after Martinsville Cup race

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Brad Keselowski scored his second victory of the season, dominating Sunday’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.

Chase Elliott finished a season-high second. Kyle Busch finished third and was followed by Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin, who had to overcome a penalty for an uncontrolled tire on pit road.

Click here for race results

Points

Kyle Busch leads the points and also has the most playoff points after six races. He has 273 points. Denny Hamlin is next at 252 points.

Busch has 14 playoff points. Brad Keselowski is next with 12 playoff points.

Click here for points report