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Chase Elliott leads Hendrick Chevy sweep of top three in final practice

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Chase Elliott paced the final Cup practice Saturday at Martinsville Speedway, turning a 97.542 mph lap on the 0.526-mile oval.

Teammate Alex Bowman was second fastest, and Jimmie Johnson made it a sweep of the top three speeds for Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets, which have been winless since Elliott’s win last October at Kansas Speedway..

Austin Dillon and Paul Menard rounded out the top five in the 50-minute session.

The rest of the top 10 were comprised of Ty Dillon, Daniel Hemric, Kevin Harvick, Erik Jones (the highest-ranked Toyota) and Martin Truex Jr.

Clint Bowyer, who won at Martinsville a year ago, was fastest in the first practice Saturday morning when Chris Buescher was the fastest Chevy in seventh.

The practice ended under a red flag after a crash for Cody Ware.

Qualifying for the STP 500 will be at 5:10 p.m. on FS1.

Click here for speeds during the final practice at Martinsville.

Meet the No. 1 draft picks in the NASCAR Heat Pro League

Greg Matarazzo
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NASCAR’s race weekend in Phoenix earlier this month was one of many firsts for Slade Gravitt.

It marked the first time the 16-year-old had ever visited a state that didn’t border Georgia. It was also the first time he ever set foot on an airplane.

On March 9, the native of Cumming, Georgia, flew to west to Arizona for where another first was awaiting him: Wood Brothers Racing would select him No. 1 among PlayStation 4 users in the first NASCAR Heat Pro League draft.

“It was a very interesting week because I started off Sunday, Monday questioning if I even had an opportunity or a chance to get drafted,” Gravitt told NBC Sports. “I saw myself as a top-10 driver. I was doing a good bit on social media. I thought I was getting drafted but there’s (what) teams prefer and we didn’t really know what the teams preferred at the moment.”

For the Wood Brothers, they preferred Gravitt’s youth and his “marketability” combined with his ability in the game.

“Then we got a couple of text messages from people at 704 (Games, the producer of the NASCAR Heat series) and people at Wood Brothers saying, ‘Hey, we’re drafting the No. 1 draft pick and flying them down to Phoenix at ISM Raceway,'” Gravitt said.

While it was his first time leaving the Southeast, it wasn’t Gravitt’s first time to attend a NASCAR event, having been to races at Talladega, Charlotte and Atlanta.

Gravitt was raised in a home of NASCAR fans 15 minutes from Bill and Chase Elliott‘s hometown of Dawsonville. His parents, Dana and Michael, were fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott, while his grandfather cheered on Dale Earnhardt Sr.

“My parents, they’re pretty supportive of it,” Gravitt said. “My dad was in the background a good bit of the Pro League draft stream. He loves it, honestly. He’s always telling me, ‘Hey, look at this article’ and stuff like that.”

Even before the Pro League was announced last year, Gravitt was an avid player of NASCAR games. He was also part of a gaming league called The Midnight Broadcasting Network, which streams their races and other games online. Seven members of that group, including Gravitt, were selected in the draft.

But Gravitt was the only one who was drafted in person and got to mingle with the likes of Richard Petty, Austin Dillon and Paul Menard.

“I’m still trying to relive what happened, cause it all went by so fast,” Gravitt said.

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Greg Matarazzo’s journey to being the No. 1 Xbox One player drafted by Chip Ganassi Racing was very different.

Matarazzo, 24, grew up in Bridgewater, New Jersey, far from any NASCAR landmark and with parents and friends who didn’t particularly care about auto racing.

He was turned onto NASCAR through the video games “NASCAR Thunder 2003” and “NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona.”

From 7 to 17, he raced himself, competing in go-karts on the grounds of the Somerset County 4H Fair, even earning some trophies in a go-kart with a No. 97 on it inspired by Kurt Busch. But that’s as far as his racing career went.

“It wasn’t really a racing state,” Matarazzo told NBC Sports. “It just wasn’t really something super accessible. … It was just kind of something I enjoyed on my own. My parents weren’t really into racing. We weren’t in the position to start-up a race team and start traveling on the weekends to tracks hours away.”

After high school he started his own clothing brand, Burassi, founded on a batch of 175 shirts he bought with money saved from a job at a pizzeria. In September 2017 he swapped coasts, moving to Los Angeles to operate Burassi full-time.

“The name Burassi is just a made up word,” Matarazzo said. “That’s kind of what the whole brand is about, just creating something out of nothing. I’ve always had an optimistic and creative mindset and perspective on life. I was just like, this is something I like to do so let me just see where it takes me. Seven years later, I’m out here in LA operating from my apartment.”

It was in that apartment on his Xbox where the door was re-opened on Matarazzo’s chances of being part of NASCAR.

“Actually, I’ve been a PlayStation guy my entire life,” Matarazzo said. “But I ended up getting a Xbox literally just so I could play against my roommate on Fortnite so we could play on the same team.”

As soon as Matarazzo saw the announcement for the esports league in December, he realized “this is my shot.

“I had to hop right on there and start qualifying.”

The second domino that led to him being drafted – after getting a Xbox – had fallen a month earlier.

“I got my foot in the door with Elijah,” said Matarazzo, referring to Elijah Burke, a Business Intelligence Coordinator at Chip Ganassi Racing. “I unknowingly hopped in one of his stream races. I guess he saw my username, ‘skrrtBusch’ and he was just like, ‘Yo, that’s a genius name, that’s crazy.'”

After being alerted by another user, Matarazzo did a Twitter search for his username and found a tweet by Burke:

“I sent him a DM (direct message) and we started chatting, and then that kind of had my foot in the door at CGR, and then we kept in touch throughout the whole qualifying process,” Matarazzo said. “I guess I proved myself to them and they ended up drafting me. It’s crazy how if I had never gotten an Xbox none of that would have happened. A little bit of luck and being in the right place at the right time.”

It led to Matarazzo being introduced at the draft by his childhood hero, who had defined his racing career in reality and online.

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What are Gravitt and Matarazzo hoping to get out of the Pro League?

Gravitt has aspirations about someday working in broadcasting or being a chef.

But what if the Pro League and esports in general turns out to be a long-term commitment?

“Of course I’ve thought about that, what my future can be in this being my age,” said Gravitt, who is a junior in high school. “When it started, I just wanted to have some fun with friends and put on a show in a professional manner. … I’m starting to realize my age and skill level could lead to something bigger. I haven’t really thought about an exact answer to that. Best I could say is more opportunities are in my way than someone than who is in their early 20, late 30s.”

While Matarazzo hopes to promote his brand and NASCAR’s, he also wants to pay it forward. He’s thinking of people like himself growing up in New Jersey with no clear path toward being part of NASCAR.

“It’s lowering the barrier of entry,” Matarazzo said. “We’re kind of stomping into uncharted territory with what we’re trying to do here.”

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Cup starting lineup at Phoenix

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Things went from lost to found for Team Penske during Friday’s qualifying for Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway in suburban Phoenix.

After three races where Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and Paul Menard have all struggled for good starting positions, the Penske camp placed three drivers in the 12-driver final round.

And when all was said and done, Blaney had grabbed his sixth career pole and Team Penske’s first pole of the year with a speed of 141.287 mph. Keselowski I139.849 mph) will start fifth. Las Vegas winner Logano rounded out the 12 final qualifiers with a speed of 138.664 mph.

Click here for the starting field for Sunday’s race.

Among those who struggled in qualifying were Clint Bowyer (26th) and Kyle Larson (31st), as well as Michael McDowell (27th) and Daniel Suarez (28th). The latter two tangled after their qualifying efforts.

MORE: Daniel Suarez, Michael McDowell scuffle on pit road during qualifying

There are only 36 cars qualified for Sunday’s race, the smallest race field this season.

The Cup Series will have two practices Saturday at 11:35 a.m. – 12:25 p.m. ET, and again from 2:05 – 2:55 p.m. ET.

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Joey Logano not surprised at Penske, Ford Mustang’s early success

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While many fans and teams were uncertain how the new Ford Mustang would perform upon its introduction to the Cup Series this season, Las Vegas winner Joey Logano, crew chief Todd Gordon and the rest of Team Penske embraced the change and newness.

“I think any time there’s a rule change like we have right now in NASCAR (the new aero package), it presents an opportunity to figure things out first,” Logano said to NBC Sports on Tuesday as part of a Panini/Donruss NASCAR trading cards media tour. “Like I said after (Sunday’s race at Las Vegas), we sure don’t have it figured out yet, but I’d say we’re doing pretty good with the speed we’re developing.

“You just have to figure it out a little better than the next guy, right? That’s the most important piece. I feel like we’ve made some good gains over the last few weeks as far as the racing side. Our qualifying efforts have been weak, so we have to make some more gains on that front. But I’m pretty proud of the effort of everyone to figure out the new rules package. As we keep going, the drivers are going to get better, the teams are going to get better and the racing is going to change. We just have to keep developing as fast as possible to stay ahead of it.”

Last year, several Chevrolet teams – particularly Hendrick Motorsports – struggled throughout the 36-race season. It took 21 races after Austin Dillon‘s Daytona 500 triumph last season before another Chevy won a Cup race. Chevrolet teams wound up winning just four races all season getting acclimated to the new body style.

But that’s not been the case with Ford and the Mustang. Leaving Las Vegas, five Mustangs and their drivers are in the top 11 in the Cup standings.

“First off, I think Ford’s done a great job collaborating with the race teams and everybody has made decisions together to make the best race car they can when they were designing the Mustang for NASCAR,” said Logano, the reigning Cup champion. “The other piece that is equally as big is the timing of it.

“Right now, with the new rules, everyone’s going through a development cycle, starting from the beginning again. Whether we were still racing the Fusion or Mustang, we’d still be developing at the same rate and learning things that we had no clue about because you’re asking something different out of the race car when you build it. So switching to the Mustang didn’t really have a penalty of starting from the beginning because everybody is starting from the beginning.”

Now that Logano and teammate Brad Keselowski have secured spots in the playoffs by virtue of their respective wins at Las Vegas and Atlanta, their teams can not only be more aggressive between now and the start of the playoffs in September but can also help their teammates – Ryan Blaney and Paul Menard of Wood Brothers Racing – to get on track and potentially get wins themselves.

“I think any time you have your teammate winning, it generates momentum within the race shop, which is good, and drives you to be that guy where everybody wants to be the top dog and you’re always fighting for that spot,” Logano said. “But we also work together real well to make sure we’re winning while we’re doing that.

“As far as the 12 car of Blaney, they’ve had a lot of speed but they just haven’t had things go their way in the first couple of races. So it’s early. I don’t think they have anything to worry about. They’ve got fast race cars, Blaney is a great driver. I think they’re going to be fine.

“As far as the 21 car (with Menard), they’ve been improving over the last year. With last year being their first year together with Paul and (crew chief Greg Erwin) at the Wood Brothers, it’s been a learning curve to figure things out. I can see them making gains as well throughout this year.

“As long as everyone is running good by the time when it matters the most, during the playoff time, that’s a big deal for (team owner Roger Penske). It’s nice to have two of them in, that’s great, we can race aggressive now, whether it’s pit strategy or the way I drive the car, we can make big moves, so that’s great. But at the same time, we still have to be concerned that the rest of our cars make the playoffs.”

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Bump & Run: Is it time for Jimmie Johnson to be worried?

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How alarmed should Jimmie Johnson be after finishing outside the top 15 at Atlanta and Las Vegas for the first time in five seasons?

Nate Ryan: It has to be somewhat unsettling, even though so much was unknown for the seven-time champion entering this season. Getting acclimated to the new rules, crew chief and sponsor simultaneously is a new experience for the 17-year veteran. It could be simply a matter of getting settled. But at 43 and coming off the first winless season of his career, Johnson surely is feeling some urgency. He wants to prove last year was an anomaly, but so far 2019 has been a regression.

Dustin Long: There should be some concern but it should be tempered. There’s little time during the West Coast swing to update cars based on what is learned at the previous race. This just shows the team it has some work to do. If this team is still running like this by Kansas in May, then the level of concern will increase significantly.

Daniel McFadin: I’d be worried. He has an average running position of 17.4 through three races and the only reason he has a top 10 is because most of the field wrecked at Daytona. He finished two laps down in Atlanta and he wasn’t part of any incidents. If we get through Martinsville and Johnson hasn’t earned another top 10, then it’s time to full on panic.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even though his winless streak now stands at 62 races (dating back to spring 2017 at Dover), it’s not time for Johnson to push the panic button just yet. If he gets to say, Bristol, and he’s still struggling, then there may be pause for concern. But remember, just one win puts him in the playoffs and he can build from there. He’s likely still learning communication and unique nuances with new crew chief Kevin Meendering, so I’m not overly worried just yet.

With consecutive victories and a strong showing by Joey Logano in the Daytona 500, how seriously should Team Penske be taken as the team to beat?

Nate Ryan: It’s only two races, but the organization’s flair for adaptability is undeniable, and Penske seems to have as strong a handle on the new rules as any team in Cup. If Ryan Blaney’s team can shake off its error-prone ways, Penske could have all of its drivers eligible for the playoffs before many teams have a guaranteed berth.

Dustin Long: Team Penske is until someone beats them, but let’s not get too carried away with what they’ve done at Atlanta and Las Vegas. While Brad Keselowski has scored top 10s in both events, he’s done that in each of the past two years at those races. Joey Logano would have the same streak had he not placed 23rd at Atlanta this year. The point is they’ve been strong early in the season before and they’ve shown the ability to excel with this new package.

Daniel McFadin: Penske is the top team right now. Dating back to last season’s Southern 500 they have won eight of the last 15 races and the championship. The fact the new Mustang model hasn’t impeded them is even more impressive. If they’re not up front in Phoenix, I expect them to be the team to beat at Auto Club Speedway where Penske hasn’t placed a driver outside the top 10 in the last four races.

Jerry Bonkowski: Right now, they ARE the team to beat. Yes, teammates Ryan Blaney (15th place in the standings) and Paul Menard (20th place) are struggling, but I expect both to get back on track in the next few races, particularly by Martinsville. And don’t forget, with Logano and Keselowski are now both locked into the playoffs, Team Penske can potentially allocate more resources to Blaney and Menard to get their cars working better and stronger.

Despite flashes of promise, Richard Childress Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing have one driver between them ranked in the top 20  in points. Is this an indication that the new rules package is less of an “equalizer” than some had predicted?

Nate Ryan: It seems more a reflection on the teams and their relatively inexperienced drivers than on the rules. Mistakes (several in the pits) by RCR and JTG Daugherty have undermined the strength they’ve shown at times.

Dustin Long: NASCAR stated that it was their intent with this rules package that the best teams still would be the ones to beat. Richard Childress Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing are not the best teams. RCR has shown speed in practice and qualifying but still has to figure out things for the race. The penalty to Austin Dillon’s pit crew didn’t help at Las Vegas. JTG Daugherty is building their own chassis and refining that takes time.

Daniel McFadin: I don’t think so, Las Vegas was the first race with the full package. RCR showed plenty of speed all weekend, but Austin Dillon’s effort was hurt by a pit penalty. We won’t know what the full potential of this package and its benefits to teams until Auto Club or at least Texas.

Jerry Bonkowski: Let’s not forget that RCR is down to only two teams this season and JTG Daugherty really hasn’t improved much. If anything, it’s in another growth mode. So, lack of success for both teams this early in the season is not entirely a surprise. And unfortunately, it’s not likely to get much better any time soon. Sure, Austin Dillon has looked strong at times this season, but he can’t carry RCR or partners JTG and Richard Petty Motorsports on his shoulders. And while the teams may be struggling with the new rules package, it’s simply going to be a matter of time, patience and trial and error before they start to make any significant progress.

There were more accidents on pit road than on the track at Atlanta and Las Vegas. What’s your take on the lack of cautions for accidents in the last two races?

Nate Ryan: It’s surprising and also a little unsettling. With the new rules delivering additional downforce and lower horsepower, there were concerns that the degree of difficulty might be lessened. Hopefully the lack of crashes isn’t indicative of that emerging trend because the cars need to be hard to drive.

Dustin Long: It’s simple. Sometimes they wreck (Daytona) and sometimes they don’t (past two weeks). Let’s see what happens in the coming weeks.

Daniel McFadin: We are fully entrenched in an era of a lack of attrition and the vanishing act of debris cautions. I expect cautions to roar back in Phoenix with its short-track characteristics. 

Jerry Bonkowski: NASCAR is giving fans what they want in terms of closer racing. That’s a good thing. Teams are still getting used to the new rules package. It’s an evolutionary process, with drivers still feeling their way out on track. Once they get a bit more confident or more familiar with the new package, it’s likely you’ll see more aggressive driving – which likely means we’ll start seeing more cautions for accidents, as a result.