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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.

Click here for full qualifying results.

NOTES:

* The starting lineup is provisional until Sunday morning’s pre-race inspection. Any car that fails inspection will lose its starting spot and move to the back of the field.

* Daniel Suarez was penalized for speeding on pit road during the final round, but managed to bounce back for another try to earn the 10th starting spot.

* 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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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.

Friday 5: Will Martinsville provide another memorable door-banging finish?

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Last fall’s Martinsville race was memorable for a finish that saw Joey Logano move Martin Truex Jr. out of the lead on the final lap to win and earn a spot in the Championship 4 in Miami.

As the series returns to the half-mile Martinsville Speedway this weekend, what are the chances of such action repeating?

“I would say that it’s probably not going to be, there’s less of a chance that it will be like that,” Truex said. “Just because it’s not a race to get into the final four. I would think it would be tame and normal like we’ve seen there in the past.”

Logano disagrees.

“I see a trophy on the line,” said the reigning series champion. “A big clock (given to the winner). I don’t see that any different from the spring to the fall.”

The first race of the season at a track less than 1 mile will test drivers and could lead to aggressive actions. The question is how aggressive will drivers be.

“The (driver) code has definitely changed,” said nine-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson. “People reference the code a lot. But I think ultimately whatever code exists is between the two drivers. And that same code might not exist between driver C and driver D or driver A and driver D; it just changes all the time.

“When I look at it, sure it was a very aggressive move and Joey knew what he was doing to get that win and I’m sure we’ll expect the same to come back from Martin at some point. … In my eyes, sure it was aggressive but it could have been a lot worse.”

2. A familiar refrain

Coming off his dominant run on the West Coast swing, Kyle Busch heads to a type of track he’s ruled lately. Busch has won five of the last nine Cup races on tracks less than 1 mile in length.

Busch’s wins have been at both Richmond races in 2018, the spring Bristol race in 2018 and fall race there in 2017 and at Martinsville in fall 2017.

Teammate Denny Hamlin, whose last win at a track less than 1 mile in length was at Richmond in Sept. 2016, explains Busch’s success.

“He works tremendously hard at his craft,” Hamlin said. “I don’t think it’s just all natural talent. I think he works very hard as well.”

3. Perfect attendance

Ross Chastain is the only driver who has competed in every national series race this season. That’s five Cup, five Xfinity and three Truck races. He’s entered in this weekend’s Truck and Cup races at Martinsville.

Chastain has been running at the finish in every race. He’s completed 98.7 percent of the laps run in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks this season (2,498 of 2,532 laps run).

Such a schedule was expected entering this season. He had a deal to drive select races for Niece Motorsports in the Truck Series. He also was set with a Cup ride with Premium Motorsports.

Chastain was to have raced for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity Series but those plans went away after the FBI raided the headquarters of sponsor DC Solar and home of the DC Solar’s CEO. With DC Solar unable to fulfill its sponsor obligations, Chip Ganassi Racing shuttered its Xfinity team. That forced Chastain to look for other options.

He’ll drive three races for Kaulig Racing (he drove for the team at Daytona) and the rest of JD Motorsports this season.

So far this season, Chastain finished 10th in the Daytona 500 — giving Premium Motorsports its second top 10 in 231 Cup starts — placed seventh at Las Vegas for JD Motorsports and was third in the Daytona Truck race for Niece Motorsports.

4. “Like what I don’t like”

Xfinity rookie Justin Haley enters the off-weekend for the series 12th in points with a season-best finish of eighth at Atlanta.

Haley placed 10th last weekend at Auto Club Speedway and explained what he needs to do to have better finishes.

“I just need to get better on the feel from practice to the race, how the car transitions and goes through the process of loose and tight,” the Kaulig Racing driver told NBC Sports. 

Haley, who finished third in the points in the Truck series last year, said that experience can’t help him with what he’s seeking to improve upon this year.

“A lot of the times the Truck races are at night, so it’s gripped up,” Haley said. “These are day races, it transitions a lot. Really these Xfinity cars have less downforce. The Trucks, if you were good at the start of the run, you were going to be good at the end. There was no falloff really. Even at like Atlanta, the balance stayed the same. These things (Xfinity cars) take a huge swing throughout the run. So just getting a feel for that is the biggest thing.

“What I like most of the time isn’t what’s fastest, so I have to learn to like what I don’t like to make it fast.”

5. Ever return?

Martin Truex Jr. was asked last weekend at Auto Club Speedway if he thought Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser would return to NASCAR after shutting his team down after last year.

Said Truex: “We talk every week. He’s been watching. He’s been talking to us and telling us we’ve been doing a good job, and things like that. I think it’s probably a bit of a relief for him that he doesn’t have to worry about all of the things that come with being a team owner and he’s just able to enjoy it.

“I told him he needs to get to the track soon, we’d like to see him and get him around. As far as your question on whether he’ll be back, if you mean as a team owner? I have no idea. We haven’t talked about it. He hasn’t mentioned it. My best guess is no, but I guess you can never rule out anything.”

Ryan: Which teams have mountains to climb after West Coast Swing?

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Kyle, Kyle, Kyle.

Kyle. Kyle.

Kyle.

As NASCAR leaves the land of Hollywood, hopefully it also will be shaking its “Being John Malkovich”-esque meta feedback loop that has been on repeat for two race weekends with a dizzying relentlessness.

Let’s wrap this up quickly!

Yes, Kyle Busch’s 200 national series victories are a laudable achievement worthy of his already Hall of Fame career.

No, it isn’t comparable to Richard Petty’s 200 Cup wins, which happened in another century (mostly with completely different tracks and circumstances) and stand on their own merits.

Maybe there are other things happening in NASCAR that are worthy of further examination with the completion of the fourth annual Nevada-Arizona-California hopscotch?

Running through a few of them:

–This is the first time in 19 years that Hendrick Motorsports has yet to record a top five through the first five races (and that 2000 team had one fewer car).

After a mediocre start to 2018 in the Camaro’s debut, the team somehow seems in the same straits with the model this season while adapting to the 2019 configuration of lower horsepower and higher downforce.

Because of the hurdles in running three consecutive races more than 2,000 miles from the industry’s Charlotte hub, it was expected that course-correcting any car deficiencies would be more difficult than it already is.

Never mind the expense of changing on the fly, it’s logistically impossible to make significant updates to cars while trying to ship them to the other side of the country amid a carefully coordinated and highly regimented plan of hauler swaps and highway gymnastics.

The March 31 race at Texas Motor Speedway will be the first 1.5-mile race in which teams have been able to digest everything learned in real-world conditions and apply them to their cars.

Alex Bowman finished 21st at Fontana and still is seeking his first top 10 in 2019 for Hendrick Motorsports (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images).

If Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson leave Texas without a top five, it won’t be the end of the world for Rick Hendrick’s squad. Last year, it took until August for Elliott to earn the first of three victories for the team, and Hendrick has an Optical Scanning Station in house (it didn’t a year ago), along with a better grasp on its personnel restructuring that occurred before the 2018 season.

All four drivers have run well at times this season, too, and Phoenix was a major rebound in qualifying.

But a collective one top 10 across 12 starts at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana is troubling and indicative that much work remains to be done for a storied organization that takes great pride in its 12 Cup championships.

–Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t miss the boat as much with its new Mustangs, but its lead driver also was chalking some of his recent success up to being a veteran.

After a fourth at Fontana, Kevin Harvick said his team made ‘a lot out of not very much.’ (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“I don’t think as a group we feel like our cars are where they need to be but that experience has led to decent finishes so we can change the things we want to when we get home,” Kevin Harvick said two days before his third top five and fourth consecutive top 10 this year. “Experience is always going to matter.”

So is money and sponsorship, which is why Stewart-Haas, Hendrick and other high-budget teams will be well positioned to retrofit their cars (or perhaps rebuild them entirely). Harvick estimated there could as many as a half-dozen combination of car styles that will need to be developed and require “an extreme amount of work” for the armies of engineers employed by teams.

“I think we are seeing some of the unintended consequences of this package,” he said. “It isn’t what everybody expected from the testing with the drafting and low drag and things you are prepared for. I feel like we have had top five, top three cars (at Atlanta, Vegas and ISM Raceway). They are just not quite winning cars.

“It is really just a survival game at this point trying to keep up with the schedule. We are learning at such a rapid pace right now that the changes to the car will be extreme by the time you get to Texas. … One of the things that caught a lot of people off guard are the differences you will have to have from race track to race track with the things you do to the car and how they work. The workload is going to be absolutely extreme on the race teams this year.”

–According to one crew chief whose team has figured out the 2019 package as well as anyone, body construction and rear ride heights are the keys to hitting the right combination of downforce and balance.

Paul Wolfe, whose No. 2 Ford posted a first, second and third with driver Brad Keselowski on the big ovals since Daytona, said his team still is finding the handle on this season’s setup, but those areas have been the most impact.

“There is a window there where you can change your rear ride height to change your drag, but that also changes the overall balance of your car,” Wolfe said after Saturday practice at Auto Club Speedway. “So then, your mechanical balance to go with the aero balance could be different. Some guys may have gone down the path of really trimming their cars out with their body build and then when you get (to Fontana), you just can’t put downforce back in it enough to be good at the tracks where you need to start to lift (off the throttle) because of tire fall off.

“There are a lot of options and lots of different things to do. It is about trying to understand not only being fast by yourself but how these cars seem to get extremely tight or they could get loose in the dirty air.”


During the throes of crisis after Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001, NASCAR executives angry about media coverage were counseled by a wise man (in a story recounted in this episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast) that “being pissed off is not a PR strategy” .

Hope isn’t a strategy, either, but that seems to be what NASCAR has clung to in hoping that group qualifying can remain viable in the era of drafting.

The most disconcerting part of last Friday’s self-proclaimed “mockery” at Auto Club Speedway is how eminently predictable the debacle was. If teams aren’t incentivized to be on the track first, then they justifiably will stay put until someone else does.

Of course, that was a terrible look at Fontana for NASCAR, and of course, the teams bear responsibility.

As do officials who blithely declared, “We’re in show business” when asked legitimate questions about why they were trying to implement procedures that have a dubious track record.

Group qualifying with a draft doesn’t work in the truck series, which reverts to a single-vehicle format. It also has failed in previous attempts at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway (and was overhauled after some controversial wrecks in 2015).

“It didn’t work in trucks, it didn’t work in Xfinity, and I don’t know why anybody thought it was going to work in the Cup Series,” analyst Jeff Burton said Monday on NASCAR America.

If the strategy for having it work this time was “let’s hope that drivers and teams will do the right thing and choose the path that will benefit the greater good of fan entertainment instead of stubbornly sticking to their selfish performance interests,” well … that’s hopeless.


OK, we give in: here’s ONE note on Kyle Busch (for Rowdy Nation and all its lovers/haters).

For the second consecutive week, Busch joked about the possibility of driving for a Formula One team as the last undiscovered country of his racing career (well, aside from if he ever gets around to the Indianapolis 500).

It seems an unlikely prospect because “nobody from F1 is calling.

“They’re going to have to spend a lot of money to buy me out of Joe Gibbs Racing, that’s for sure,” said Busch, who recently signed a multi-year extension that probably takes him through at least 2022 in the No. 18 Toyota. “I don’t know if it’s worth their investment. … I’d love to be able to give it a shot and kind of see. I don’t foresee the opportunity really blossoming.”

Ahh, but it once could have!

When the ill-fated USF1 team was planning a 2010 entry into Formula One (that unfortunately never happened), Busch was high on their radar screen – enough that USA TODAY reported that sporting director Peter Windsor had a cursory meeting with Busch’s business team.

“It’s definitely something I wouldn’t shoot down,” Busch said in 2009. “If I could win a championship (in NASCAR) in the next two or three years then I wouldn’t mind going doing (F1) for a few years and coming back. I think I’d still be young enough that if I could win a championship by 25, go run Formula 1 for a few years and be back (in NASCAR) by 28.”

That window has closed for Busch, who turns 34 in May.

But he doesn’t sound as if someone who has completely closed the door on considering the possibility again. So in the unlikely event an F1 team wanted to take a chance on a NASCAR champion in his late 30s …


Dustin Long’s report was intriguing on Cole Custer being the first choice as the replacement driver Sunday if an ailing Austin Dillon fell out of the No. 3 Chevrolet – and not just because Custer was consuming a “jumbo platter” when he got the call.

Typically, such arrangements don’t happen with drivers crossing manufacturer lines. But the time and travel constraints of the Fontana race made Custer (a native of nearby Orange County who had lingered after his Ford won Saturday’s Xfinity race) the easiest choice.

In the “corporate teammates” era in which automaker hardball on brand loyalty often is a barrier to drivers moonlighting as often as yesteryear, it was refreshing to confirm it doesn’t preclude a common-sense decision such as this.


Fontana again stirred some passionate debate about the efficacy of the 2019 rules package, which virtually has guaranteed wild restarts but also has produced a surprising amount of green-flag racing (there’s been one crash that could be considered “multicar” – and even that was a stretch – over 1,300 miles at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana).

Two more points seem relevant:

–Kyle Busch’s 2.354-second margin of victory was a fraction of Martin Truex Jr.’s 11.685-second thumping at the same 2-mile oval last year.

–If you are advocating dumping the tapered spacers that limit horsepower to 550 at tracks such as Fontana, here’s your friendly reminder that restoring last year’s horsepower numbers would take a herculean effort by engine manufacturers who have already mapped out months of inventory at the current parameters. Reverting to 2018 probably would require months of hardware and logistical challenges.


NASCAR President Steve Phelps told the Arizona Republic that April 1 is the goal for releasing the 2020 schedule.

While next year’s slate likely won’t be unveiled this week, there is momentum within NASCAR for targeting the week between races at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.

It still is expected to feature a fresh approach to the calendar, but any venue changes won’t happen until 2021, as Phelps said last month.

Speed Tweets: Trash talk, yearbook, spare firesuit

Jimmie Johnson
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NASCAR’s West Coast swing is over, but we can’t close the book on it just yet.

It’s time for our weekly look at contributions to NASCAR Twitter you may have missed during the Auto Club Speedway race week.

Early last week a Twitter user got the bright idea to troll Tyler Reddick over his 2018 Xfinity Series title, calling him “lucky.”

The last time we checked, leading the final 37 laps of the championship race and winning by 6.9 seconds is the opposite of lucky.

The Richard Childress Racing driver – who leads the points after five races this season – agreed.

Jimmie Johnson has signed a lot of autographs in his nearly two decades in the Cup Series.

But you know you’ve truly made it in life when someone asks you sign your high school yearbook.

That’s the situation he found himself in over the weekend at ACS, which is roughly two hours north of his hometown of El Cajon, California.

A day after beating Kyle Busch in the Xfinity race, Cole Custer was on high alert.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver very quickly became a potential Richard Childress Racing driver as Austin Dillon competed in the Cup race while fighting flu-like symptoms.

In the end, a Ford driver did not have to relieve a Chevy driver and a rip in the space-time continuum was avoided.

Dillon managed to earn a 10th-place finish while Custer got to spend a few hours snug in another driver’s firesuit.

Clint Bowyer had a very quiet exit from Sunday’s race, falling out on Lap 130 to due to overheating problems.

He made sure to inform Twitter of his race progress.

Oh, and he has thoughts on the new rules package.

One driver who did not have a quiet race was Bubba Wallace.

His left front tire went boom on Lap 165. With it went a handful of fan names inscribed on the car through  a special deal with sponsor Plan B Sales and Marketing.

 

You didn’t think we’d go this entire post without mentioning Kyle Busch, did you?

Remember the tall flag Busch waved around after scoring his 200th national NASCAR win?

Well, it had a camera attached to the top of it.