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Almirola: Season-best fourth place finish ‘just not quite good enough’

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Aric Almirola continues to be off to one of the best season starts of his NASCAR Cup career.

The Tampa, Florida, native has been giving teammate Kevin Harvick a run for his money as the top driver at Stewart Haas Racing thus far in 2019.

After being involved in a crash that relegated him to a 32nd-place finish in the Daytona 500, Almirola has steadily climbed the ladder of success since then, finishing eighth at Atlanta, seventh last week at Las Vegas and a season-best showing of fourth Sunday at Phoenix.

Harvick, meanwhile, racked up a 26th place showing at Daytona (crash), fourth-place finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas and a ninth-place outing Sunday at Phoenix, meaning Almirola was the highest-finishing SHR driver in the TicketGuardian 500.

You’d think Almirola would be happy to have the spotlight on himself for what he did at ISM Raceway as SHR’s top-finishing driver.

On the contrary, Almirola wanted more – a lot more. You might even say he borrowed a page from Kyle Busch’s playbook when the younger Busch brother broods after he has a strong race but doesn’t win.

“We had a good car, but we’re just not quite as good as we need to be,” Almirola said. “We still have work to do, but I’m really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing. We keep chipping away.

“That’s three top 10s in a row, our first top five of the year, so we’re getting there. Our cars are getting a little better, but we just have to keep working and keep finding more speed.

“We have a great race team and we’ll continue to improve on what we’ve got, so we’ll just keep working. Our Smithfield Ford Mustang was decent, but just not quite good enough.”

If he hadn’t been passed late in the race by Busch, runner-up Martin Truex Jr. and third-place finisher Ryan Blaney, Almirola potentially may have wound up in the top-three.

But lapped cars and the new aero package limited his forward progress late in the 312-lap race.

It’s always really tough to pass at Phoenix,” Almirola said. “But then when you put more downforce in the cars, we’re going across the middle of the corner faster and cars are punching a bigger hole in the air with a bigger spoiler, it just inherently makes the cars a lot harder to drive when you’re behind and in traffic.

“That’s nothing new. I think we all kind of knew that going in and expected it and it’s really just a product of what we have going on right now.”

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Brad Keselowski puts on driving clinic with convincing win at Martinsville

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Brad Keselowski put on a driving clinic Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, leading 446 of 500 laps to win the STP 500. It was Keselowski’s second win of the season (also won at Atlanta), and his fourth top-3 finish in the last five races.

It was also Keselowski’s 29th career Cup win and his second Cup Series triumph in 19 career starts at Martinsville, having also won in April 2017, as well as his eighth top-5 and 13th top-10 there.

Chase Elliott finished runner-up.

Kyle Busch, making the 1,000th overall start of his NASCAR career, finished third, snapping a two-race winning streak (Phoenix and Fontana). Busch and Keselowski are now the only two drivers to win more than one race thus far this season.

Ryan Blaney finished fourth, followed by Denny Hamlin. Sixth through 10th were Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez.

There were only three leaders in the race: Keselowski, Chase Elliott (49 laps) and Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate and pole sitter Joey Logano (6 laps).

STAGE 1 WINNER: Brad Keselowski (first stage win of season)

STAGE 2 WINNER: Brad Keselowski

WHAT’S NEXT: O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, March 31 (Fox); green flag shortly after 3 p.m. ET.

We’ll be back with more information, including quotes, full results and updated standings. Please check back soon.

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Kyle Busch has idea for NASCAR’s Xfinity, Truck limits

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Kyle Busch would entertain the opportunity to pursue the one NASCAR championship that has eluded him – in the Gander Outdoor Truck Series – when his Cup career is over.

But he’s got an idea that would allow him to run both series concurrently and address the limits on Cup drivers running in lower series.

“Why don’t you let us run as many races as we want to run and then once we miss one, we’re done?” Busch pondered after his victory Saturday in the TruNorth Global 250 truck race at Martinsville Speedway. “So if I go all the way to (the June 15 race at Iowa Speedway) in the trucks and run 10 races and can’t go to Iowa, I’m done.

“You can race for points or whatever and so if that ever came down to that, then maybe there’d be an opportunity years down the road that then you can run multiple series and try to go after a championship that way.”

What was NASCAR’s reaction to the plan?

“That’s probably the first time I’ve said that or thought about it,” Busch said with a laugh. “Now that it’s out there … there’s not a damn fan that’s ever going to let it happen.”

Indeed, Busch’s 201st career victory in a NASCAR national series drew the usual outrage on social media Saturday, both from his Rowdy Nation legion of fans and those who vehemently believe he should be limited beyond the NASCAR cap of five truck races and seven Xfinity races allowed for full-time Cup drivers.

Busch has won in seven of 11 starts in trucks, Xfinity and Cup this season.

“Could have been nine or 10 (victories) probably, that’s what the scary part is if it wasn’t for simple mistakes,” Busch said. “Overall, it’s been fun. It’s a damn shame I’m only allowed five and seven.”

Busch has two 2019 starts left in trucks: at Texas Motor Speedway next week and Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.

He said the chances are solid for going 5 for 5.

“I’d like to think Texas is a good place,” he said. “I think our guys have a good baseline. Charlotte is always one of my best tracks, favorite tracks and enjoy running there with the trucks, especially. There’s a good opportunity.

“It’s kind of an expectation (to win every race). We just go out, work hard and smart, and today we let the race play itself out and come to us.”

Busch won the 2009 Xfinity championship in the last season in which he ran full time in NASCAR’s top two series. He has focused solely on Cup full time since then, and NASCAR has changed rules over the past eight years limiting the ability to run for more than one title.

Despite 148 starts (and 54 victories), he is yet to run a full truck season, but the 2015 Cup champion has said he’d like to become the first driver to win a championship in each of NASCAR’s top three series.

Three Cup cars fail prerace inspection at Martinsville Speedway

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The cars of William Byron, DJ Kennington and Jeb Burton failed inspection Sunday morning at Martinsville Speedway.

Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet failed mechanical measurements. His sixth-place qualifying time will be disallowed, and he will have to start from the rear.

Kennington failed the OSS. He qualified 34th.

Burton had qualified 33rd.

The three cars will officially start behind those that passed inspection. Cars that qualified behind them will move up one spot.

The No. 24 suffered a right-front tire problem in the opening minutes of first practice Saturday morning, and the team made repairs to put the car back on track.

Today’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway: Start time, lineup, more

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MARTINSVILLE — High downforce could bring hot tempers to Martinsville Speedway, where today’s STP 500 will mark the first short track of the 2019 Cup schedule.

In the last visit to the 0.526-mile oval, Joey Logano bumped Martin Truex Jr. aside entering the last two corners in one of the most thrilling finishes of the 2018 season.

Here’s the pertinent information for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Robert DeRidder, the senior vice president and general manager of Energizer Holdings Inc. (owners of STP), will give the command to start engines at 2:01 p.m. The green flag is scheduled for 2:07 p.m.

PRERACE: The crew chief and drivers meeting is at noon. Driver introductions will begin at 1:20 p.m. The invocation will be given by track chaplain Mike Hatfield at 1:54 p.m. The 380th Army Band will perform the national anthem at 1:55 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (263 miles) around the 0.526-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 130. Stage 2 ends on Lap 260.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race with coverage beginning at 12:30 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race. MRN’s coverage begins at 1 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast, which is also available at MRN.com.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 63 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain for the start of the race.

LAST TIME: In a race delayed to Monday by a snowstorm, Clint Bowyer scored his first victory for Stewart-Haas Racing. Kyle Busch finished second. Ryan Blaney placed third. Joey Logano won at Martinsville last fall. Denny Hamlin placed second. Martin Truex Jr. was third. 

TO THE REAR: William Byron (mechanical measurements), DJ Kennington (OSS) and Jeb Burton will start from the rear after failing inspection Sunday morning.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.