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Joey Logano holds off Aric Almirola for Martinsville pole

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Led by defending NASCAR Cup Series champion and pole sitter Joey Logano, Fords dominated qualifying, capturing the four top spots for Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.

Logano covered the .526-mile oval with a speed of 97.830 mph, earning the 21st pole of his Cup career — with five of those now coming at Martinsville.

“You just have to be so precise and pushing yourself so hard in the corners, and a mistake is such a penalty,” Logano told Fox Sports 1. “It was awesome to get another pole here at Martinsville and hopefully we can top it off with … another win in the books.”

Aric Almirola was second fastest (97.643 mph), followed by Brad Keselowski (97.458), Kevin Harvick (97.832), Denny Hamlin (97.362), William Byron (97.202), Kyle Larson (97.098), Chase Elliott (97.053), Martin Truex Jr. (97.018), Daniel Suarez (96.830), Clint Bowyer (96.706) and Jimmie Johnson (96.573).

It appeared as if Almirola might take the pole, but Logano overtook him with just 34 seconds remaining in the final round.

“I just barely missed it by a little bit, and that’s all it takes,” Almirola told FS1. “We came up close, but just not enough.”

Kyle Busch failed to advance to the final round of qualifying. He’ll take the green flag Sunday from the 14th position in the 1,000th overall NASCAR start of his career. Just before Cup qualifying, Busch won the 201st race of his NASCAR career in the Truck Series race.

We’ll have the full qualifying grid and starting lineup shortly. Please check back soon.

NOTES:

* Daniel Suarez was penalized for speeding on pit road during the third and final round. He had to make another qualifying run, as a result.

* Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s first qualifying attempt was disallowed for speeding on pit road. He came back on-track to try again before the session expired, but could go no faster than 25th, failing to advance to the second round. “I didn’t feel I was going that fast (on pit road),” Stenhouse Jr. told Fox Sports 1. “Either way, our first or second time wasn’t good enough to make it. Definitely not the qualifying effort we wanted.”

* Cody Ware and Cory LaJoie did not make qualifying attempts, having to work on their race cars after being involved in wrecks during Saturday’s practice sessions.

* Sunday’s STP 500 (500 laps/263 miles) will take the green flag shortly after 2 p.m. ET (Fox Sports 1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

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Clint Bowyer fastest in first Cup practice; Corey LaJoie crashes

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Clint Bowyer paced Saturday morning’s practice at Martinsville Speedway, where he scored his first victory for Stewart-Haas Racing a year ago.

Bowyer’s No. 14 Ford turned a 97.673-mph lap on the 0.526-mile oval in the first session for Sunday’s STP 500. Teammate Daniel Suarez was second fastest, followed by Aric Almirola, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch.

“Our Ford is pretty fast,” Bowyer told FS1. “With more downforce, it enables you to roll the corner faster, but it’s still the same old Martinsville.”

Brad Keselowski, Chris Buescher, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott rounded out the top 10.

There were two incidents during 50-minute session. Corey LaJoie heavily damaged the right front of his No. 32 Ford with a hard impact in-between Turns 1 and 2 because of a brake problem.

LaJoie was OK after the crash but lamented losing a car. “There is no coffee strong enough that will wake you up like losing brakes into Turn 1 at Martinsville,” he told FS1. “It’s not a good feeling losing brakes. It’s unfortunate because small teams like ours, we don’t really bring a backup that’s fully ready to go, so my guys have a lot of work ahead of them.

“Obviously our backup’s not going to be as good as our primary. Hopefully, they can work on the backup and make it just as good.”

In the opening minutes of the practice, William Byron also hit the Turn 2 wall and damaged his right front of his No. 24 Chevrolet after suffering a punctured right-front tire.

His team was able to make repairs to put his primary car back on track.

The No. 34 Ford of Michael McDowell was held out for 15 minutes at the end of the first session because of multiple prerace inspection failures before the March 17 race at Auto Club Speedway.

Click here for speeds from the first practice at Martinsville.

What Drivers Said after Sunday’s Auto Club 400 in Fontana

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway, highlighted by Kyle Busch’s historic 200th career NASCAR win:

KYLE BUSCH — WINNER:Feels just like number one. Feels just like yesterday. Man, that was such an awesome racecar. I mean, dang. This Interstate Batteries Camry was awesome today. I’m glad we put on a heck of a show for all these fans out here in California at Auto Club Speedway. It takes green to get in Victory Lane today. Today is St. Patty’s day. All these other guys were at a disadvantage. The Interstate Batteries Green Machine was flying today. Just awesome. Just awesome. To win 200, I mean, whatever it means, it means a lot to me. It means a lot to all my guys, everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing. You guys are all the best. Toyota, TRD. It’s an amazing opportunity to drive for Joe Gibbs. I cherish every minute of it, love it always. Just wish that we could keep it going, keep it going like this, running strong, running well, and winning these races. … (His goal when he decided to become a NASCAR driver) I think the original goal was just to get to NASCAR and then once I got here, it was to win a race. Once it was winning a race then it was about trying to sustain and being able to be a winner here and to be a champion here. To have the opportunities to continue down the line to be able to be successful each and every year and we’ve been doing that. We’ve only won one title, but certainly I feel like I have the best team out there right now and we just have to be able to do it all year long.”

Joey Logano – finished second: “We were racing hard and no matter who got to the lead, the 18 was going to pass us. He was the best car today. We have some work to do to get faster but the team did a great job today. We held strong today with the Auto Club Ford Mustang. You want to win at the home track of your sponsor. We gave it a solid run. I hate being that close. The last few laps you are running up against the wall and he had a big enough lead to kind of cruise a little and you are just hoping a lap car gets in the way or something. It was solid. We have a lot of momentum on this race team right now.”

Brad Keselowski – finished third: “We were really good and got to the lead there on that last run but I just couldn’t quite keep it there. It was a good effort by the team and we were right there in position and we gave it all we had. … (On Kyle Busch’s win) It is really fast through the corners and that is always good. That is really important and he had that today. I gave all I had for him. I got in front of him and tried my best to hold him off, we just fell off too much.”

Kevin Harvick – finished fourth: “We raced well today. My guys did a great job on pit road. Our car was better than it was in practice. I didn’t have anything for the Penske cars or the 18 car. They did a great job of racing hard all day and we made a lot out of the west coast swing with not very much. We have some work to do but we know you still have to go race. Our Jimmy John’s Ford Mustang was okay today and we got a decent finish. My guys did a great job. We didn’t have much that we thought was going well this weekend but they made the car better and did a great job of keeping us in the game. It raced well and we had a great day on pit road. We overachieved today and I am really proud of everyone on the team for that. We have done that four weeks in a row but when you come to this west coast swing you have what you have and we left here with four top-10’s and three top-fives over the first five races. I am proud of everybody for that. It isn’t always going to be good. You have to try to figure out how to do things better when they aren’t going very good and our guys have done that.”

Ryan Blaney – finished fifth: “We ran pretty decent all day. We just weren’t very good the first run but we got a lot better. We had a lap and a half on our tires when the caution came out. I thought if I could control the race from the front row and be the leader that I might be able to hold on because I thought our car was pretty good at the time. I was fourth by the time we got to turn one. I got no push. It took 10 laps for it to come in and we were eighth and drove back to fifth. We had a really fast PPG Ford Mustang, we just never got the lead or track position with equal tires and that hurt us but overall not a bad day.”

Kurt Busch congratulates brother Kyle Busch on his 200th career NASCAR race win. Photo: Getty Images.

KURT BUSCH – finished sixth: We had a good day. I was just hoping to get a top 5 and came home just a bit short. But the growth rate of us at Ganassi and the adjustments we’re making, I couldn’t be happier. I’m smiling as I’m driving the car. It’s so much fun to toss it down in there with all this downforce and the horsepower, you just pitch it sideways and see if it’s going to stick. But, we know we’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s awesome to run up front. I’m smiling. But, we know at our growth rate, we’re not on a plateau yet. I’ve got to keep going. … (On brother Kyle’s 200th career win) This is a big day. For my little brother to have 200 wins, they’re all added up through his hard work and his dedication to perfection. Not bat for two kids with an attitude from Vegas.”

Aric Almirola – finished ninth: “I thought that was very typical California. The restarts were wild and crazy like we always see here and track position was king. We got strung out and fought track position a lot today. The cars are very difficult to drive in the wake of air of the cars in front of you. It is very challenging. The restarts are definitely exciting. The fans get their money worth for a few laps at least. All in all it was a great day for our Farmer John Ford Mustang. We got to lead some laps in the beginning. We just never made the right adjustments. We were a tick off all day. We had a top-six car and lost some track position and that is all we could do to muster you a ninth place finish.”

Austin Dillon – finished 10th: “We had a really fast Dow Chevrolet this weekend and we have shown speed all year. We earned the pole award and ran well within the top-five until the end of Stage 1. I could feel the right-rear tire going down and brushed the outside wall. The No. 3 team did a great job keeping me on the lead lap during multiple pit stops for repairs. The Dow Chevrolet remained fast. It was just an uphill battle to reclaim track position. Through hard work, we were able to finish 10th. I’m so proud of this team.”

Daniel Suarez — finished 13th: “We had another good Haas Automation Mustang this weekend. We have a few things we have to clean up as a team with pit road, etc., but we had a good car. We had a top-10 car and we showed that at some points, but we’re still learning each other and we’ll get better and better the longer we work with each other.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — finished 14th: “We started the race really good. The later in the race, our Fastenal Ford just got too tight. We gambled there early on but spun out on the restart which set us back all race. We kept fighting and restarted sixth for the final 31 laps but just couldn’t hold on. It was still a decent finish for us overall in the big picture.”

Ryan Newman — finished 22nd: We just struggled with the handling all day and once we fell a lap off the pace it was hard to make up ground. Our team worked hard all weekend and we showed some good speed, so we’ll take that as a positive and move on to Martinsville next week.”

Ty Dillon — finished 27th: We had a really great GEICO Camaro ZL1 at the start of this race. It was handling the best it had all weekend. My guys had found something that was going to work and keep our good finishes going, but the flat tire under green at the end of Stage 1 really hurt us. We had strategy plans to get our laps back if we could ever catch the cautions that we needed, but those just didn’t happen. It’s unfortunate that a tire ruined our day, but that’s not going to get this team down. We are going to keep grinding and working hard to be ready for Martinsville next weekend.”

Daniel Hemric – finished 33rd: “I hate it for everyone on this No. 8 Liberty National Life Insurance Chevrolet team. We had a strong run going and had worked from the 17th spot to racing inside the top 10 by the end of Stage 1. I was racing in heavy traffic once we went back green, and the air just sucked me up the track and I made contact with the outside wall exiting Turn 4. That damage cut the right rear tire and we had to pit under green to repair the damage. Unfortunately, we had another flat right rear, which caused even more damage. Nobody on this team gave up and I am proud of them for doing all they could to repair the damage. The car still had speed, but without the help of many cautions, we never really had the chance to get those laps back and then we had a flat left front in the closing laps, which hurt us even more.”

Clint Bowyer — finished 38th: “I felt like we had the car dialed in today better than we had all weekend, and we were looking pretty good early. But she started vibrating and you could smell something, so we were probably on borrowed time. I’m disappointed for the Rush and Haas folks who came out today hoping to see us run up front.”

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Long: What NASCAR does with qualifying isn’t the biggest question

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FONTANA, Calif. — So what next?

What is NASCAR to do to fix a “mockery” of qualifying – a series executive’s comment — after all 12 Cup drivers in the final round waited too long to get on track Friday and failed to complete a lap before time expired?

The suggestions flow. Go back to single-car qualifying. Heat races. Make cars that don’t complete a lap in the final round start at the rear. Have group qualifying for two rounds but make the final round single-car qualifying. Send cars out at timed intervals.

Before NASCAR can set a course, other questions must be asked.

The first question is what’s more important for NASCAR? Is this about entertainment or competition?

Entertainment is critical to a sport that seeks to rebuild its fan base. Close racing, drama and excitement can energize a fans attract new ones.

The past three weeks of Cup qualifying has been appointment viewing. There was the unknown of what would happen at Las Vegas with the rules package, the fight between Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell at ISM Raceway and then what would happen Friday at Auto Club Speedway. When is the last time there has been so much interest in qualifying for three consecutive races?

But is that interest based on too many gimmicks?

When NASCAR announced its rule changes in early February, Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer told the media: “Our core goal in everything we do is to deliver the best possible racing for our fans.”

O’Donnell also said that day that “the stars of NASCAR have always been the drivers and the cars. We want to make sure that is the emphasis in any rules package we put forth.”

But there appears to be a limit. In discussing the group qualifying model in that same meeting, Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, said: “One thing that we realize and everybody in this room realizes is that we’re in show business.”

After Friday’s episode in the last round of qualifying, Miller said that while changes will be made to the format, “we really don’t want to go back to single-car qualifying. There may not be another way. We want to exhaust every possibility before we do that because that’s not as fun, not as intriguing of a show as the group situation.”

Drivers and teams are frustrated. They feel they have less control in the group qualifying format. Some would suggest that there’s too much randomness to how the starting lineup is set. It’s more about getting the right draft at tracks 1.5 miles and larger than having a car with the most speed on its own.

“I told you all back in Vegas that I am still a big fan of single-car qualifying,” Ryan Newman, told NBC Sports after being among those who failed to complete a lap in the final round Friday. “That is all I need to say, really. That is the way qualifying should be.”

Said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch: “The last car has the biggest advantage and you’re a buffoon to go out and be the first car.”

Beyond the entertainment/competition question, other questions must be asked: What is the role of the sanctioning body? Should it be about penalizing infractions or creating opportunities for competitors to excel?

At Las Vegas, David Ragan started sixth for Front Row Motorsports. The organization had two top-10 starts last year (Bristol and Daytona) but none at a 1.5-mile track. The group qualifying format helped created an opportunity for that organization to attain a strong starting spot.

Without such chances might that team have qualified as high? Is it fair to do away with such opportunities for that and other teams?

“It’s hard to control every single thing in our sport,” Ragan told NBC Sports. “There needs to be a little bit of randomness. That makes things creative.”

But Ragan also noted that “we need to keep the integrity of the sport.”

So should NASCAR create a rule — another rule to anger those who say the rule book has too many entries — that penalizes teams for not completing a lap in the final round and make them start at the back? Or is there another way to deal with this situation before teams arrive in Texas in two weeks?

Those are among the questions NASCAR must answer before deciding what changes to make to qualifying.

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What drivers said after Auto Club qualifying

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Austin Dillon — qualified 1st: “Well, a lot of the cars wanted to follow us, they knew we had the car to beat. So trying to get us to go was probably a part of that. And then, when the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) made a little bit of a move there, I was going to follow him to have one car to beat. I didn’t have to make it back around. Then the No. 12 (Ryan Blaney) came through the grass, I thought he demolished his car. It looked like he left the ground over there, I don’t know what he hit, but it was pretty wild. At that point, my spotter said you can bring it around here, I knew we had gotten the pole. God never ceases to amaze me, Man. It is awesome to see the blessings that have been bestowed on me. It is special.”

Kevin Harvick — qualified 2nd: (On what happened in the final round): “I think the crowd booing tells the story.”

Aric Almirola — qualified 3rd: “That is the product of the environment we are in. We are all very dependent on posting a good lap based on the draft that you get. You are in that box and it is really stressful trying to figure out when to leave pit road and what position to put yourself in and you can’t be the lead car. The lead car is at such a disadvantage. You just play all the games and if you are going to be the lead car you try to drag it out until you are the only car that makes the line. If you misjudge a little bit you get what we just saw.”

Kyle Busch — qualified 4th: (Any solutions?) “They fixed it in trucks, right? Made single-car qualifying. … You can’t be the leader. If you’re the leader, you don’t qualify up front. … In a perfect world, you try to leave pit road with the exact amount of time that it takes to come back around for you to be able to take the green flag and everybody else’s time to be disallowed, but we all missed that.”

Joey Logano — qualified 5th: “We blew it, but at least we all did. The answer is to go sooner but nobody wants to be the first one out there. I don’t know really what to say. We have something to talk about now I guess. I don’t know what to tell you. That is the game. It is just part of it.”

Denny Hamlin — qualified 6th: “No, it’s not a mind game but you don’t want to be first. When you don’t want to be first, you wait until someone goes in front of you. … I knew I had a drop-down time on my dash (on when to leave pit road). But I was boxed in where I couldn’t go. Once everyone left pit road, they then checked up and slowed down. I knew we weren’t going to make it.”

Ryan Newman — qualified 7th: “I don’t think that was a very successful use of TV time for our sponsors. I told you all back in Vegas that I am still a big fan of single-car qualifying. That is all I need to say, really. That is the way qualifying should be. The gamesmanship that goes on, the lack of 100 percent, it is not what qualifying is all about. That is the program that NASCAR set forth and the rules they laid down and the box they put us in. Shame on us for not getting a lap in.”

Chase Elliott — qualified 8th: “Well, I don’t know. Obviously nobody wants to be the first guy so it’s unfortunate. I don’t know what the fix is. I feel like it’s entertaining with us going out there and drafting and trying to set-up that gap to do it right. It’s just tough because nobody wants to be the first one. And obviously you’re not going to go if you’re going to be first.”

Clint Bowyer — qualified 9th: “You know, I have seen it in other sports but never seen it in ours. We just got booed and it is disappointing. It is disappointing for everybody involved. I don’t know. I saw this coming three weeks ago. I think we all did. Unfortunately we are going to have to be reactive to it instead of proactive. It is just a learning process. The whole package is. Everybody knows that going in and everybody has been patience but I am a little out of patience with Friday’s. There is so much hard work and dedication on so many teams behalves to go out there and have the fastest car known to mankind that you are literally capable of building in the walls of your organization and it just doesn’t matter. That is not racing. I feel like we are capable as an industry of putting on a better show than that. I know they will make the right provisions to make that correction but unfortunately it is going to take something like that to make that adjustment.”

Ryan Blaney — qualified 10th: “It is just the way it is. It is such a big place and you don’t want to be the first person to go because you are going to qualify last in the round. We got close to the time we needed to go and we just didn’t make it. We had the truck deal three or four years ago and they went away from it and now we are back to doing it and running into the same problems. That is just how it is.”

Jimmie Johnson — qualified 11th: “I understand why we’re in this box. Single car qualifying isn’t all that entertaining. So, I guess we’ll just have to see what the opinion is from this and go with the lesser of the two evils in the end.”

Brad Keselowski — qualified 13th: “I don’t’ know. The race is going to be so much different than qualifying, so I don’t think there is a whole lot you can really take away from today. This was pretty much the same at Vegas. Kind of in between Vegas and Atlanta.”

Chris Buescher — qualified 14th: “We should have been a little bit better based on practice, but I love this race track. And, it’s a fun race. It’s just been a lot of fun to race everywhere this year. I’m glad the qualifying portion is over and we can get into the race and have some fun.”

Kyle Larson — qualified 15th: “I was the lead car for that big draft there. We ended up 15th. After last week you don’t want to mess up and not get a lap again. So, just trying to be as patient as you can be but still not be the lead car. But we wanted to leave ourselves some time. So we were just the lead car and were hoping that other people wouldn’t make it to the line in time.”

Ty Dillon — qualified 16th — “That’s a massive improvement over last year’s results. And we’ve been really succeeding in this style of qualifying. It’s different, for sure, but we also we’re all out there trying to do the same thing and be the fastest car. So, I’m proud of our effort and proud of what we’re doing as a team and we’re definitely embracing this style of qualifying.”

Daniel Hemric — qualified 17th: “We just kind of found ourselves on the back end of a draft that put us side-by-side racing cars and that’s not ideal when you’re trying to run a fast lap. We’ll roll off in 17th and it’s good to see a Bowtie on the front row there with (teammate) Austin Dillon getting the pole and it’s really cool for RCR. Those guys are putting in a lot of effort and Chevrolet and ECR and all our partners are doing a lot of good things to give us speed and it’s good to pay off. We thought we should have had two or three poles by now so it’s good for one of us at RCR to finally get one.”

Daniel Suarez — qualified 20th: “If you qualify well, it is fun. If you don’t qualify well, it is a little frustrating at times. It was a little frustrating for me because things didn’t work out the way that we were planning.”

Matt DiBenedetto — qualified 24th: “Just frustration, not at our guys. Our guys do nothing but work their tails off and give me a good Toyota Camry. That’s fun, but I have to say thanks to everybody here at Procore and all the folks that give me this opportunity, but the situation – I don’t love losing my mind every week in qualifying.”

Martin Truex Jr. — qualified 27th: “It was just that he (Cody Ware) ran the bottom in three and four, which is where I wanted to be. Since he was just leaving the pits, he ran high to get his momentum up like normal and just missed the bottom there and that obviously hurt our speed there off three and four. It’s unfortunate, we missed it today off the hauler. We were pretty tight in practice and then we were way too loose there. We were just on both sides of it. We’ve been struggling a little bit on Fridays, but I know we’ll be right tomorrow and we’ll have some cars to pass Sunday, but I know we can do it.”

Bubba Wallace — qualified 28th: “Been disappointed for a while. (What are you lacking?) Money. It’s where we’re lacking. We need money to make more speed.”

Cody Ware – qualified 34th: “Apologies on my part (for getting in Martin Truex Jr.’s way in qualifying). I’m just, obviously, not normally looking behind … in qualifying. I’m listening to what my spotter has to say. Apologies to Truex if I may have impeded his lap in any way.”