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

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.”

MORE: Click here for race results

MORE: Click here for points report

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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