What Drivers Said after Martinsville

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Brad Keselowski had just enough to hold off a late charge by runner-up Chase Elliott and third-place finisher Kyle Busch to win Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

Here’s what drivers had to say about their day:

Brad Keselowski – winner: “The car was really good – this Ford Mustang. You know, Ford worked really hard in the offseason to build these cars and make them real strong and so far, so good. It’s just a great day for our team, awesome execution on pit road and big credit to Doug Yates and all the engine guys. Those guys work really hard and it’s just one of those days you dream of as a race car driver, where you’ve got a great car. I don’t know if we were as good as the 9, Chase Elliott. He was really strong, but he passed me there with about 200 to go and I watched him and studied him and kind of broke it down and knew what I had to do to hold him off with that fast of a car and we were able to pull it off that last run with the Reese/Draw Tite Ford.”

Chase Elliott – finished second: “It was really tough. Our NAPA Camaro was good. I felt like we were about as even with him (Keselowski) as we could be. When I did get the lead, I felt like there was a little advantage to being out front and being able to work traffic your way and play off it and whatnot. But, yeah, I tried to move up there at the end and I don’t know if I could have got to him. Maybe if I moved up a little sooner, maybe. But, I tried to get to him there in (Turn) 3, but maybe next time.”

Kyle Busch – finished third: “I had a nose underneath the 2 (Brad Keselowski) there in the middle of (turns) three and four and he just chopped my nose off. Normally when you hit a guy, they move out of the way. Instead it seemed like my car had to move out of the way and then the 9 (Chase Elliott) got by me so we ended up finishing third. That was a lot better day then we probably should have had and we made the most of our opportunity with our M&M’s Camry. … (We needed) more raw speed. We were just kind of off a little bit. We didn’t qualify good and I didn’t think we were very good in practice. Not as good as we typically are here. Just lacking a little bit of something. From where we ran midway point of the race to where we finished there, that was a really good turnaround. I’m thankful to have Adam Stevens and all of my guys that work so hard for me and give me everything I need here for this M&M’s Camry to stay up front and be up front and come home with a top five again here at Martinsville.”

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Ryan Blaney – finished fourth: “Long runs, that’s what I needed. I needed long runs and I didn’t want to see that last caution. For like a110-lap run to the finish is what it was gonna be, 120, I was like, ‘Man, that’s perfect. We’re gonna get them here.’ Our car was just starting to come to us. We just got to third and the caution came out and I was like, ‘I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to fire off alright,’ and we didn’t and we kept losing spots on pit road and you can’t have that. We would lose at least one or two spots every time we’d come down pit road and you can’t win races like that. We’ve got to clean that up, but, overall, a solid day, it’s just that those guys had a good short-run car and that’s just what it came down to. I was more 50 laps or more, but the last three weeks have been pretty smooth for us. We just have to keep having weekends like this and maybe we’ll be able to win one of these things. … (On teammate Brad Keselowski’s win) He put it on them today. It looked like from the drop of the green flag he was great. Him and the 9 looked like they had some really good racing going on for a while. They swapped back and forth, so that was good for him. He’s great here. He’s proven to be one of the best guys out here. They were on it all day. Like I said, we were kind of swapped. He was better than me short run and I was a little bit better after 50 laps, but it didn’t come down to that. It’s nice for him to get the Penske group another win and get Ford back to Victory Lane.”

Denny Hamlin – finished fifth: “It’s just one of those days where one guy hit it and was just a little bit better than everyone else, and everyone else was chasing. It seemed like we were the next car in line after the 9 (Chase Elliott), so probably a third place car. We just finished fifth because we lost there on pit road. We have a lot of races where we always have to battle back from the back of the pack, but certainly another top five and overall steady day. We just needed a little bit more speed and a little bit more handling to run with the 2 (Brad Keselowski). … (Being frustrated with pit road mistakes) we’ve got to get better. We know that. We’re struggling a little bit right now for sure, but certainly it’s a team thing. Last week I had a speeding penalty so it all equals out. If you’re not going to be the best car, you have to execute perfectly. The best car didn’t falter so it wouldn’t have made a difference either way, but certainly cost us maybe one or two spots today. Nothing to hang our heads about. Overall a good day.”

Kevin Harvick – finished sixth: “It was an OK day for us. I think as you look at our Martinsville stuff it’s been hit or miss. I feel like I was a little better than the 11 and the 12, but you’ve got to be able to get by them on the restarts. We just never could get the car right all day and be able to let off the brake and roll to the center of the corner. It was definitely not what we wanted, but not a bad day for us at Martinsville. … We just were a little bit off rolling speed to the center of the corner and I couldn’t quite get to the throttle like I needed to and kind of just, I don’t know, we could kind of hold our ground on the restarts, not really gain anything, and track position was a big deal.”

Clint Bowyer – finished seventh: “I don’t think anybody obviously had anything for the 2 or the 9 made some adjustments there early and was really fast. I think we were a top three car for sure, but we kept beating ourselves. … I guess we need to get our stuff together on being on the same page with that pit road speed. It’s such an important thing and such a big part of this style of racing, where track position is everything. We push it to the limit, but it’s so hard to practice pit road speed. You’ve got trucks on pit road when you’re trying to practice that. I’m not making any excuses, it’s just when you’re trying to pinch every little thing out of it, it was hard this week to practice pit road speed because of all the stuff on pit road. … It’s obviously on us. We just weren’t on the same page. It’s frustrating. It is what it is. We just have to quit beating ourselves.”

Martin Truex Jr. – finished eighth: “It was tough. We started ninth and finished eighth. It sounds pretty simple. Actually we started eighth. A lot of stuff we worked on in between. Just really could never get the handle all day long. Too loose off the corner. I couldn’t get forward drive. No matter what we did it seemed like we couldn’t get it. We struggled a little bit. I thought we were going to be better than that today. Good job by the guys. A nice consistent day. We just didn’t have anything special. … We just missed it a little bit. We were really good yesterday in practice. Martinsville is a weird place. You can be the best car in practice and finish 20th in the race. We were too good yesterday I guess. Just fought one thing all day, a terminal problem, and really couldn’t do anything to get it better.”

Aric Almirola – finished ninth: “We just lost a lot of track position on pit road today and then the 18 got in my left-rear quarter on one of those restarts. I got together with the 19 off two and had to check up a little bit and the 18 kind of bonsai’d it down there into turn three and about wiped me out. I lost 10 or 15 spots and then we fought track position the rest of the day. Every time we’d pass a bunch of cars and get back in the top six or seven we’d have a horrible pit stop and come back out 13th or 15th. It was just a long, long, tough day.”

Daniel Suarez, finished 10th: “We were good in the long run, but, unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot of longer runs the rest of the day. felt like in the long run maybe my car was the best, but the short run wasn’t as good. It’s funny because yesterday it was the opposite, but something good to build on and hopefully we can keep going in the right direction. … The consistency was good. I wish we had a little bit more speed on the short run, but it was a decent day. It’s something good to build on and hopefully we can keep getting better.”

Ty Dillon – finished 13th: “Our GEICO Camaro was extremely fast, but we had two speeding penalties. To finish 13th after starting 22nd and having those two penalties, that shows how much speed we had today. I am very proud of our day, and you can always say ‘what if’, like if we didn’t have the penalties – where would we have been? But I am really proud of our effort, and this is what we envisioned three years ago in doing. Just getting better every year and making sure we had taken the right steps to be where we needed to be in year three. We just want to keep going in that direction and I think if you look at Phoenix, Martinsville, and these short tracks, we have gotten better and better every year. I think as we continue to grow we are going to be more and more competitive at the short tracks. We just have to get it where we are running top-15 at the 1.5-mile tracks, and then we can be really competitive.”

Alex Bowman – finished 14th: “When the clouds came out we got a whole lot worse. That is a bummer because we were running ninth or 10th right before that. Really good execution today. We weren’t fast, but we had good execution today and it’s one of those days where you can go home and feel pretty good knowing you did everything you could. Pit stops were really, really good and adjustments were good for the most part. So, we didn’t have the race car we needed, but the team executed today really well.”

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Friday 5: Can Kyle Larson break out of his slump at Talladega?

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
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Two years ago, Kevin Harvick called Kyle Larson “the best driver to come into this sport since Jeff Gordon.”

Harvick remains bullish on Larson even though the 26-year-old enters this weekend on a 55-race winless drought.

Few drivers could have used last weekend’s break more than Larson — he said at Richmond it has been “a pretty crappy start to the year” — but can he turn things around starting at Talladega Superspeedway?

Larson’s struggles were discussed by Kevin Harvick and co-host Matt Yocum on “Happy Hours” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. Yocum asked Harvick how he kept himself mentally up when things aren’t going well.

Harvick responded by raising questions about Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston.

“I think when you look at (Larson’s) environment, I look at his crew chief,” Harvick said. “I don’t think he’s the most positive guy in the world. When you have a driver that is in a slump, I don’t think it’s going to come from his crew chief. I think Chad is a pretty low-key guy that kind of complains a fair amount.

“I think as you look at that, I don’t know if it’s going to come from his crew chief. I think it will have to come from (car owner) Chip Ganassi or somebody outside of what they do, crew chief to driver. (Larson is) still really young, so he needs some guidance and he needs some help to get through the situations that he’s in. In the end, when his contract is up, I don’t know exactly when that is, but he’s going to be a hot commodity.”

Johnston has been Larson’s crew chief since 2016. Johnston came to Chip Ganassi Racing after he was Tony Stewart’s crew chief in 2014-15. Those were Harvick’s first two seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Larson has scored all five of his Cup victories with Johnston as his crew chief.

Harvick said on his show of Larson: “The bottom line is Kyle Larson is a very, very talented driver that can win a lot of races with the right people around him and the right guidance from somebody kind of helping him finish races and helping him understand when things are good or if things are bad, if you’re running fifth, you need to finish fifth. Having those people around him would in the right environment, the right chemistry and the right things to go with it are really going to help him along in his career.”

It has been a tough start of the season for Larson, who has not finished better than sixth. He led 142 laps at Atlanta but saw his chances to win fade when he was penalized for speeding. Larson finished 12th that day.

Chevrolet’s struggles also haven’t helped Larson or teammate Kurt Busch. Joe Gibbs Racing has won six races for Toyota, and Team Penske has won three races for Ford this season. They’re the only two organizations to win in the first quarter of the season. Chevrolet teams have combined to win four races in the last 45 races, going back to last year’s Daytona 500.

Ganassi noted this week on Twitter the challenges Chevrolet teams face.

Larson’s task doesn’t get easier this weekend. He has five top-10 finishes in 21 Cup starts at Talladega and Daytona. Larson has never finished better than sixth at either track. After finishing 11th at Talladega in the playoffs last year, Larson lamented: “We just had a terrible race car and were really slow all weekend.”

Will the new package this weekend change Larson’s fortune?

2. What to expect this weekend?

Depends on who you ask? Drivers have different takes on what might happen.

There are many questions because of a few changes. Tapered spacers have replaced restrictor plates. Teams are getting about 100 more horsepower, meaning engines will top 500 horsepower.

To offset that speed gain and slow the cars, NASCAR raised the rear spoiler an inch to 9 inches. NASCAR also is mandating a 1-inch bolt-on track bar mount to change the height from 11 to 12 inches, raising the rear of the car by an inch.

“Handling should not be an issue at all, I’m pretty confident in that,” said Joey Logano, who has won three of the last seven Talladega races, including last spring’s event. “It was (before). You could tell some cars were better than others.

“Now, I think the field will be more equally matched. It’s already the great equalizer, and now we’re equalizing it even more. I would assume the pack will be tighter, cars will be closer, more aggressive moves, probably closer blocks. Maybe the runs happen quicker because the hole in the air is bigger. Maybe the runs on the leader will be bigger.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a tandem (draft). That can happen. I don’t know if it will or not. You would think with a spoiler that big there is a good chance of that. We’ll see.”

Paul Menard is among those who question how long tandem drafting — which was prominent about a decade ago — can work, if at all.

“The big restriction with tandem racing is cooling,” he said. “Our radiators and things aren’t made, the spec radiators don’t have the cooling we had a few years ago when we did the tandem. I think you will see people get to people’s bumpers and push as long as they can.”

There are other questions as well

“I am wondering how the side draft will work,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won this race in 2017 for his first career Cup victory. “How you can get different runs on cars and ultimately what you can do when you are out front to maintain the lead. That is what our speedway racing has turned into, get to the top five and if you are in the top two of each lane, bottom or top, how do you stay there. I think a lot of people have it figured out now, but now that the package is going to change. Is that still going to be something easy or capable of doing?”

Practice should be interesting today but even that will not provide all the answers. Those will come Sunday.

3. Memorable moment 10 years ago

The end of the April 26, 2009 race at Talladega will remain one that is replayed with one car flying into the fence on the last lap, a new Cup winner being crowned and the driver whose car flipped running across the finish line to complete a race his car couldn’t.

Brad Keselowski celebrated that day, driving for car owner James Finch in a part-time ride that saw Keselowski drive the No. 09 car five times that season. Keselowski was running full time in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports and did seven Cup races for Hendrick Motorsports in a fifth car teams were allowed to run with a rookie driver.

Keselowski’s future, though, wasn’t with Hendrick Motorsports. The team didn’t have an opening with its four-car team filled by Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin. That lineup would remain intact through the 2011 season.

In October 2009, Keselowski signed with Team Penske. That came less than a month after Martin inked an extension through the 2011 season with Hendrick Motorsports.

Keselowski’s Talladega victory a decade ago was the first of 29 in Cup for him. Six of those 29 victories have come at the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega. He’s won five times at Talladega and once at Daytona.

How different might things have been for Keselowski had he not won that race at Talladega in 2009?

“I’d like to think that it opened some doors for me,” Keselowski said. “It’s hard to say because none of us have complete control over our destiny, but when I look out the window, I’m not sure I would have ended up at Penske if I hadn’t won that race. 

“It was a major marker. It opened up, in my mind at least, but I can’t speak for Roger (Penske) or Discount Tire. It opened up the window for me to get the Discount Tire deal, which I needed to really feel good about driving for Team Penske because that opened up the Xfinity Series for me, opened up the team development side that I thought was going to be so critical to our success and to kind of get Penske on its feet. 

“If you recall, they were in a bad place at the time, and I don’t know if that would have happened without winning that race. Maybe it would have. I don’t know. It’s a better question for Roger and Discount Tire, but either way, I’m glad it happened. I’m thankful and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

4. Working together again?

One of the fascinating elements from the Daytona 500 was how Toyota and Hendrick Motorsports worked so well together to offset the dominance of Fords.

NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan revealed the inside story of that deal after the race.

The question is will such a union be needed this weekend to combat the Fords or will the rules help others gets to the front?

Keep an eye on how this plays out this weekend.

5. White House visit 

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced during a briefing Thursday that reigning Cup champion Joey Logano would be honored at the White House next week, continuing a tradition of Cup champions visiting the President.

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Kligerman’s Talladega car to honor Toyota Racing Development’s 40th anniversary

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NBC NASCAR analyst Parker Kligerman will be back behind the wheel at Talladega Superspeedway for this Sunday’s GEICO 500.

Kligerman will be driving the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota Camry, which will carry a special paint job commemorating the 40th anniversary of Toyota Racing Development.

“We’re proud to honor TRD’s American racing heritage as the organization continues to help build some of the best Toyota engines across all of motorsports,” Kligerman said in a media release. “This paint scheme honors so many great victories over the years.

TRD and Toyota have been involved in all types of racing – from dirt tracks, to the drag strip and pavement ovals – and we can’t wait to see TRD-powered Toyotas in victory lane for years to come.”

Kligerman is looking to improve upon his 15th-place finish in this year’s season-opening Daytona 500.

“It’s a race of attrition, and these super speedways even the playing field,” Kligerman said. “If we can avoid the big crashes, drive a smart race and just be around at the end, our chances are just as good as anyone’s.”

Added TRD president David Wilson, “It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since TRD first started in American motorsports. We’ve had a rich history in motorsports with over 1,300 TRD-powered victories across 35 series and we look forward to many more.”

Gaunt Brothers Racing team owner Marty Gaunt has had a relationship with TRD that dates back to 2004.

“It’s such an honor to highlight TRD’s 40th anniversary on our Camry,” Gaunt said. “TRD is a leader in technology and innovation – not just in NASCAR but in many different forms of racing. No matter what team, driver or manufacturer you root for, TRD has helped make the racing product better.”

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NASCAR America: What are the top five upset wins at Talladega?

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Of his 76 career NASCAR Cup wins, Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt earned a record 10 victories at Talladega Superspeedway.

Brad Keselowski has the most wins – five – of active drivers at the 2.66-mile facility, NASCAR’s largest racetrack.

On Thursday’s NASCAR America The MotorSports Hour, Krista Voda and analysts Parker Kligerman and AJ Allmendinger recapped the top five upset wins at ‘Dega:

No. 5: 1981 Talladega 500 – Ron Bouchard beats NASCAR Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte in a wild three-wide finish. Bouchard’s winning margin was 2 feet. He would also go on to win the 1981 NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year honors.

That was Ron Bouchard’s lone win in the Cup Series,” Voda said.

No. 4: 1988 Winston 500 – Phil Parsons earns the only win of his NASCAR Cup career, defeating runner-up and Hall of Famer Bobby Allison by .21 of a second.

Phil Parsons, stealing a win, in the black Skoal Bandit car, the classic Skoal,” Kligerman said. “The hair’s even better on Phil, it’s a blonde mullet.”

No. 3: 2006 UAW-Ford 500: Brian Vickers took out Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the backstretch on the final lap and wins under caution.

Brian Vickers tries to make a move on his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, and takes out Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” Kligerman said. “How did he make it out of Talladega alive?

No. 2: 2009 Aaron’s 499: Brad Keselowski earns his first career Cup win in one of the most dramatic finishes ever seen at Talladega. Carl Edwards tried to block Keselowski and force him below the yellow line at the bottom of the track. Keselowski wasn’t having any of it, held his ground, made contact with Edwards’ car – sending Edwards into the catch fence – and then held on to defeat Dale Earnhardt Jr. by .175 of a second.

You’re not supposed to go below the yellow line, Brad Keselowski said ‘I’m not going below the yellow line,’” Allmendinger said. “Carl Edwards went up in the grandstands and bounced back. I remember driving by there and said ‘wow, that was big.’”

Added Kligerman, “The reason (Keselowski) didn’t go below the yellow line is a year prior, Regan Smith got the win taken away for going below the yellow line. So (Keselowski) listened to that.”

No. 1: 2013 Aaron’s 499: This race went four laps into overtime before Front Row Motorsports teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland finished 1-2 for the organization’s first-ever Cup win. 

It was a long day,” Kligerman said, “It was basically nighttime (in victory lane) with rain delays and tornado warnings. It was a crazy day but that’s an exhilarating win for that team.”

Ragan comes into Sunday’s race “as a long shot, according to Vegas, 100-to-1 odds. Somebody’s got to take that bet,” Voda said. “David Ragan is a name you always have to pay attention to at Talladega.”

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NASCAR America presents The Motorsports Hour at 5 pm ET

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America presents The MotorSports Hour airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, with Parker Kligerman, AJ Allmendinger and Krista Voda.

We’ll cover multiple forms of motorsports, including NASCAR, IndyCar, Supercross and more.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.