Martin Truex Jr. wins pole for Quaker State 400

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Martin Truex Jr. won the pole for Saturday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), claiming his series-best fourth pole of the season.

Truex, the defending winner of the Quaker State 400, posted a top speed of 188.890 mph. It’s his 19th career pole.

He is joined on the front row by Erik Jones (188.739 mph), who is coming off his first career Cup win last week.

The top five is completed by Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch.

“It’s Turn 3, man. That sucker will get you every time,” Truex told NBCSN. “If you want to go fast you’ve got to put it on the edge. I’m talkin’ a half a MPH going into (Turn) 3 from over rolling the speed and just missing the bottom. It’s a treacherous corner but it’s a lot of fun when you get it right.”

Austin Dillon qualified 13th and was followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Larson.

Larson has started 11th or worse in seven of the last nine races.

Bubba Wallace qualified 25th followed by AJ Allmendinger and Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson has started 27th or worse four times this season.

Four drivers, including Denny Hamlin, Jesse Little, Timmy Hill and Matt DiBenedetto, did not make qualifying attempts after their cars failed to pass inspection in time.

Click here for the starting lineup.

Erik Jones tops final Cup practice at Kentucky Speedway

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Erik Jones, who earned his first Cup win last weekend at Daytona, was fastest in the final practice session at Kentucky Speedway on Friday.

Jones posted a top speed of187.748 mph around the 1.5-mile speedway. He only recorded five laps in the session.

Jones was followed by Ryan Blaney (187.311 mph), Kyle Busch (186.503), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (185.982) and Austin Dillon (185.714).

Kyle Larson, who was fastest in the first practice, was 25th on the speed chart (181.616) and recorded the most laps with 48.

Denny Hamlin had the best 10-lap average at 180.939 mph.

Click here for the speed chart.

Friday 5: No panic for Chase Elliott in battle for playoff spots

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Chase Elliott is quick to point out that he doesn’t feel helpless, but he knows that he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates face challenges to secure playoff spots in the final eight regular-season races.

Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson, Elliott and Alex Bowman hold what would be the final three playoff positions, heading into Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Johnson has a 54-point lead on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — the first driver outside a playoff spot. Elliott leads Stenhouse by 37 points and Bowman leads Stenhouse by 19 points.

“I think that we certainly have room to improve, and I think we have improved from where we started the season,” Elliott said earlier this week after unveiling the tribute throwback scheme he’ll run in the Southern 500.

“There’s been some weeks where we end practice on Saturday and we’re not in the same league as some people. What you have to do is go make the most of what you got. At the end of the day that’s sometimes the best thing. It’s easy to overreach sometimes and get yourself in more trouble than what you could have done if you just had done what you had in front of you.”

That could be an easy trap to fall in.

Hendrick Motorsports, an organization that measures success by championships, has gone nearly a year since its last Cup victory.

Jimmie Johnson is on a career-long winless streak of 41 races and Elliott seeks his first career Cup win as he nears 100 career starts. Teammate Alex Bowman makes his 100th start this weekend and looks for his first Cup win, although many of his starts were with underfunded teams, and William Byron is in his rookie season.

Elliott had scored eight consecutive finishes of 12th or better before he placed 19th at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago and then finished 34th at Daytona after he was eliminated by an accident.

“You can’t wig out over it,” Elliott said. “It is what it is. I had no control over the crash on Saturday night. Chicago, yes I thought I could have done a better job at the end of that race to improve our finish, sure, but this past Saturday night I don’t know what I would have done to keep that from happening. That stuff happens. Once we fall out of a  race I can’t control anything beyond that.”

2. Class by themselves

Moments after exiting a boiling car at the completion of 400 miles at Chicagoland Speedway, Brad Keselowski sat on the pit wall and wiped sweat from his face with a towel as Kyle Busch celebrated another victory.

Busch’s win two weeks ago continued a trend that has seen Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. dominate. They have won 13 of the first 18 Cup races this season and the last 12 races on 1.5-mile speedways, dating back to last year.

“It’s like there’s an A, B, C, D group,” Keselowski said of ranking the teams. “We’re in the B group. We want to go from good to great.”

He noted then that they were behind Truex, Busch and the Stewart-Haas Racing cars.

“I think the difference, as you look at those cars, they have more speed and you don’t see their mistakes because they’ve got speed to recover from it,’’ Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, said after the Chicago race. “We’ve got to keep working on trying to find more speed in our cars.

Busch admitted his car was awful the first two stages at Chicagoland before hitting on the right changes and taking the lead on pit road.

Clint Bowyer showed how fast the Stewart-Haas cars are — Gordon said Bowyer’s car at Chicago was “stupid fast” — by finishing fifth after two speeding penalties and a third trip down pit road when he did not serve a stop-and-go penalty on his second speeding infraction.

That’s not a luxury most of the field has. They have to be perfect.

That’s the challenge Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Kentucky Speedway for many teams.

3. Ruh-roh

That seems to be the common theme about the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway (or Roval as some call it) after some teams tested there Tuesday.

Tight turns, minimal run-off areas before hitting walls or tire barriers, and the race being the cutoff event in the first round of the playoffs, should make for a wild afternoon of racing.

What that race will do, though, is put more pressure on teams to do well in the first two races — Las Vegas and Richmond — in the opening round. Have poor finishes at either of those races and be toward the bottom of the playoff standings will only add pressure on drivers at Charlotte in the Sept. 30 event.

Another key factor will be how many playoff points drivers have. That could make the difference in advancing from the first round if the race is as chaotic as some forecast.

The rest of the Cup field is scheduled to test on the Charlotte road course Tuesday.

4. Gauntlet thrown

After Ben Rhodes’ Camping World Truck Series win Thursday night at his home track of Kentucky Speedway, ThorSport Racing General Manager David Pepper had a warning to competitors.

“With five races to go in the regular season, leading into the playoffs,” Pepper said, “the rest of these teams need to look out for ThorSport. We’re going to be a factor.”

Along with Rhodes giving the team its first win of the year Thursday, ThorSport’s Matt Crafton finished third and Grant Enfinger placed sixth. ThorSport’s Myatt Snider crashed in qualifying and never had a chance to do much in his backup.

GMS Racing’s Johnny Sauter has won a series-high four times and Hattori Racing Enterprises’ Brett Moffitt has three wins.

5. Drivers to get their first win while at Joe Gibbs Racing

Erik Jones is the fifth driver to score his first career Cup victory while at Joe Gibbs Racing. He joins Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.

Labonte’s first win came in the 1995 Coca-Cola 600. Stewart’s first win was in the September 1999 Richmond race. Hamlin’s first win was in the June 2011 Pocono race. Logano’s first victory came in June 2009 at New Hampshire.

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NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Kentucky in last three seasons

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Fantasy owners will want to take a deep breath this week and shrug off the beating they took at Daytona International Speedway in the Coke Zero Sugar 400.

Before the race began, Denny Hamlin predicted a crash fest. Last week’s fantasy preview suggested avoiding the Big 3 because of the prevalence of accidents. Players who mostly avoided the marquee drivers are the one who moved up in their league.

Now, it’s time to go back to the drivers who have dominated all season to set this week’s NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are all in this week’s top five along with Hamlin and a surprising Jamie McMurray. There are other solid dark horse contenders in the bottom of the top 10.

As it has been all season, the secret to success is going to be selecting the right two drivers to pair with the Big 3 – and of course playing close attention during the race. Follow along with Rotoworld’s twitter account (@Rotoworld_Auto) [https://twitter.com/Rotoworld_Auto] for updates during the race to help decide who to move into or out of the garage.

1. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 6.00)
Busch’s numbers at Kentucky are even better than they would appear at first glance. With a career average of 5.1 in seven races, this is the best track on which he’s competed.

2. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 7.33)
Hamlin has been able to overcome pit road mistakes and he will challenge for wins as soon as those are eliminated. Two of his last three Kentucky attempts ended in top fives. He has also been consistently strong on similarly-configured, 1.5-mile tracks this season with three top fives and a seventh in six races.

3. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 8.67)
While Harvick’s average is great at Kentucky, he has not yet scored a top five on this track. His best effort was a seventh in 2014, but that won’t matter Saturday night – he will still challenge for the win.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (three-year average: 9.33)
Eventually the remainder of the field is going to catch up to the Big 3, but this is not the week to bet against them. Truex’s victory in last year’s Quaker State 400 suggests he could become the first driver other than Busch or Harvick to win on a 1.5-mile track this season.

4. Jamie McMurray (three-year average: 9.33)
His track records have not been predictive very many times this season, but that might change for McMurray at Kentucky. He came close to breaking into the top 10 on the most recent 1.5-mile track with a 12th at Chicagoland two weeks ago and enters the weekend with back-to-back seventh-place finishes in the 2016 and 2017 Quaker State 400s.

6. Matt Kenseth (three-year average: 10.00)
Given how much the No. 6 has struggled this year, Kenseth cannot be considered a good value in fantasy racing – unless he posts speeds in the top 10 in practice. If that happens, he could be one of the best dark horses available and could help make the difference on the NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster.

7. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 14.67)
Busch lost an engine with 10 laps remaining in this race last year. That snapped a four-race streak of results 12th or better. Given his consistently strong efforts for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018, it is likely that he will get back into the top 10 this week.

8. Ryan Newman (three-year average: 15.00)
For Newman, Kentucky has been an all-or-nothing track. In the last four years, he has either finished third or in the 20s in alternating races. If the pattern holds, he should score a top five this week, but that is not something he has done on a similarly-configured, 1.5-mile track in the past two seasons.

9. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 15.33)
Keselowski has won at Kentucky in every even-numbered year since the Cup series began coming to this track. It’s a quirky little stat that doesn’t necessarily predict another win, but top-10s in five of seven races suggest he will at least run well.

10. Aric Almirola (three-year average: 16.00 in two starts)
Almirola missed last year due to injury. That means his latest attempt on this track ended in a 20th in 2016. In five starts at Kentucky, he has scored only two top 15s and no top 10s, so fantasy players are going to want to wait until he gets through practice before deciding whether to roll the dice on the No. 10.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: The similarly-configured, 1.5- and two-mile tracks have been egalitarian in regard to who has won poles, but the Busch brothers have managed to grab two apiece. Kurt took the top spot at Michigan and Texas; Kyle led the field to green at Charlotte and Atlanta, so they deserve special attention in the first practice session this week to gauge how fast they are in Q trim. Paul Menard (Chicagoland), Harvick (Kansas), Truex (Auto Club), and Ryan Blaney (Las Vegas) also bear watching.

Segment Winners: The two drivers who have combined to win every 1.5-mile race this year also have the most segment wins. Harvick has five to Busch’s four – and while it is hard to bet against them, four other drivers have been able to challenge them at the end of the stages. Kyle Larson, Keselowski, Blaney, and Almirola each have one segment win. With 65, Kurt Busch has the most segment points on 1.5-mile tracks without winning a stage.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

NASCAR America Scan All: ‘If he wrecks everybody, he’ll win’

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was the center of attention last week in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway. He was on the lips of most of the drivers in the field

After being involved in five incidents during the evening, Stenhouse was taken to task by many of the drivers and team members.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • “We’re all done. [Expletive] animals. I swear, nobody wants to ride; nobody wants to follow.” – Kurt Busch
  • “I’m gonna guess that was the 17. Wild guess.” – Denny Hamlin
  • “This is the only race Stenhouse can win to get himself in, so he was doing everything.” – Chris Gayle, spotter for Erik Jones
  • “What are these guys doing? The 17 hooked him too.” – Clint Bowyer
  • “The 17 has successfully wrecked half the field.” Mike Bugarewicz, Bowyer’s spotter
  • “He’s such a [expletive] idiot. What a [expletive] waste of [expletive] space.” – Kyle Busch
  • “This one was worse than the last one. He just drove into his rear and spun him out,” Cole Pearn, Martin Truex Jr.’s crew chief.
  • “Yep. If he wrecks everybody, he’ll win.” – Truex

For more, watch the video above.