Brad Eyes Elusive Grandfather Clock

The oldest track in NASCAR, Martinsville Speedway hosted its first race in 1949, and since then, it’s resided near the top of every Sprint Cup driver’s win wish list. Brad Keselowski is no different.

BK has come incredibly close on several occasions at Martinsville, including two times last season alone, but the driver of the No. 2 Ford is still looking to add his name to the list of winners at The Paperclip, something he hopes he can finally check off his bucket list on Sunday in the STP 500.

2016 NASCAR Las Vegas

To say that Brad was close to victory in both races last year at Martinsville last year almost qualifies as an understatement. His finishes of second and 32nd don’t do justice to how well the Deuce ran on the Virginia short track, where he led 161 Sprint Cup last season. But 2016 presents another opportunity, and pairing that recent success at the Paperclip with the confidence boost the No. 2 crew received from the last few weeks of racing before the Easter Break, has BK and expecting to be a serious contender for his first Ridgeway Grandfather Clock this weekend.

“We had probably our best year at Martinsville since I’ve been on the Cup side in 2015,” said No. 2 crew chief Paul Wolfe. “We really had a car capable of winning both races last year. Obviously we weren’t able to get it done. We feel like we can definitely build off of those notes from last year.”

Last year’s spring run at the tight 0.526-mile oval ended in a thrilling battle between Brad and rival Denny Hamlin. A debris caution with 40 laps remaining set BK up for a run at the checkers, and he surely went for it.  Trying every possible late-race short track maneuver he could think of, Brad ran through the checklist—marking off all but one possibility: wrecking Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota. Already a party to previous bad blood with Hamlin, Kes knew he couldn’t push that envelope without consequence. The driver of the No. 11 respected the fact that he didn’t.

“Hats off to Brad,” Hamlin said after the race. “He had an option (to wreck me) and he took the latter — thank him for that.”

It’s unusual for two drivers the caliber of Hamlin and Brad to leave such a competitive race with an even greater respect for one another. But instead of brewing more animosity between the two, that’s exactly what last year’s STP 500 accomplished for the drivers of the No. 2 and No. 11. Kes took the high road and finished second, while Hamlin added the coveted clock to his trophy collection.

Brad returned in the fall looking to secure his own grandfather clock and book a spot in the Chase for The Sprint Cup finale at Homestead. The 500-lap battle for those two honors featured total Team Penske dominance, as Brad and teammate Joey Logano led a combined 350 of 500 laps, or 70 percent of the race.

The pair looked destined for a one-two finish, but as the old saying goes, “to finish first, you first must finish.” Late in the race, the Deuce was bumped from behind by the No. 41 of an impatient Kurt Busch on a restart, sending the No. 2 Ford spinning into the No. 20 of Matt Kenseth. That wreck ended Brad’s day, and Kenseth went on to intentionally put the then leader Logano into the wall several laps later.

Due in part to that gut-wrenching conclusion, this year’s running of the STP 500 will mark 12 years since a Team Penske entry saw Sprint Cup Victory Lane at Martinsville. Rusty Wallace last drove the Blue Deuce to earn a grandfather clock in 2004, his sixth triumph for Penske at The Paperclip. Brad will look to up that number to seven, and he’ll also attempt to continue his strong start to the season in the process.

BK will return to the familiar white and blue Miller Lite colors at Martinsville after taking two weeks away from the signature scheme. The last time the No. 2 Ford donned the White Lite colors, it ended the day in Victory Lane in Vegas. A pass on leader and hometown favorite Kyle Busch with less than ten laps to go set Brad up for his second win in three years at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

With a load of momentum on their side, the No. 2 Crew set off to tame Phoenix, the next location in the three-race West Coast Swing. Unfortunately, a repeat performance wasn’t in order for the Alliance Truck Parts Ford Fusion. Although the Deuce ran inside the Top 10 for a majority of the afternoon, it wasn’t enough to prevent a tire failure from causing a hindrance to their race. The next event in Fontana introduced yet another new paint scheme to the season, this time showcasing the No. 2 Wurth Ford Fusion. In the early going, it looked like Brad was a lock for another Top 10, until the 2 Crew was charged with an uncontrolled tire penalty. A determined, and fired up Brad was able to claw back through the field and get back in position to win—but that chance was spoiled by a late race caution.

Still, Brad crossed in ninth, which marked his second best finish ever at Auto Club Speedway, and adding yet another solid showing with this year’s new low-downforce package to the No. 2 crew’s résumé. This week brings a critical preview of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but as Wolfe explained during a guest spot on the Motor Racing Network‘s Motorsports Monday, it won’t be much of a showcase of that new aerodynamics package. Instead, Wolfe expects the narrow Virginia oval to bring its own unique set of challenges nonetheless, as is always the case on the Paperclip.

“We’re not going to really see the effects of the downforce changes at Martinsville,” Wolfe said on MRN. “That’s the one thing, as we’ve changed aero packages over the last few years, it seems at Martinsville, you work on the same things every time you go there and that’s managing your breaks and keeping your breaks on the car for that 500 laps so you have something to race with at the and. And two, keeping the rear tires on the car. The drive off is huge. We haven’t really seen the aero side of that effect us much there.”

This season, the Sprint Cup Series has set a new record in terms of closest average margin of victory at 0.37 seconds. Of the five races so far, only Atlanta ended under caution, so the record is based on a four-race average. At a short track like Martinsville, it’s likely that average may drop even lower. Last year’s margin of victory between Hamlin and Keselowski was a mere 0.186 seconds.

That showdown between the No. 2 and No. 11 last year showed just what Martinsville is all about. With tight quarters, passing is always incredibly difficult on The Paperclip. That will make qualifying critical for the 2 Crew. And as Wolfe explained, a strong run in time trials will also give the teams something even more valuable than track position: a good stall on the short track’s crowded pit road.

“Our big challenge going into this weekend is trying to get better in qualifying,” Wolfe said. “That’s an area where we’ve been OK, but not where we want to be. It’s so important when it comes to pit selection. Obviously starting up front is important too.”

Brad’s best start at Martinsville is third, but that came all the way back in 2011. He started 11th and 12th in the two races there last season, and boasts and average start of just 15th. He’ll have a chance to improve upon that during Friday’s 4 p.m. ET qualifying session. He was 16th in the weekend’s first practice with a time of 19.637 seconds. His 16 laps were the fewest run by any driver in the top 35. The Cup series will also have two race-trim practice sessions at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Finally, the STP 500 will go green shortly after 1 p.m. ET on Sunday. The entire weekend slate for the Cup series will be broadcast on FOX Sports 1.

NCWTS RETURNS TO ACTION

Martinsville Speedway is a track of firsts for Brad. It was not only the scene of his first ever Camping World Truck Series race—but his first NASCAR start altogether.

In April 2004, the unsponsored, family run, No. 29 K-Automotive Ford F-150 was one of the 36 trucks to make the field at Martinsville out of 45 qualifiers. BK earned the 26th starting position and probably didn’t place any huge expectations on himself for the event, but he surely wanted to complete the full race, something that some typical short track racing is often quick to prevent. He missed 23 laps of action due to an accident, but BK managed to finish the race running and in 33rd position.

Brad hasn’t driven a truck at Martinsville since 2007, but his Brad Keselowski Racing team will hit the unique asphalt and concrete surface this weekend.

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Coming off a nearly month long hiatus, Camping World Truck Series racing resumes, with both full-time BKR drivers hitting the track. Daniel Hemric, driver of the No. 19 Draw Tite / California Clean Power Ford F-150, sits second in championship point standings, one marker behind former BKR driver Parker Kligerman.

Championship contender and fellow BKR teammate Tyler Reddick is currently ranked 13th in points. The driver of the No.29 Cooper Standard F-150 hasn’t been able to put a full race together just yet, but the 2015 runner up completed both Martinsville races last season with fifth-place finishes.

“Martinsville is a very technical and very difficult track, and it’s not a place that’s in Tyler’s comfort zone yet,” said No. 29 crew chief Doug Randolph. “Every time we’ve been there, by the time the race ended, Tyler was as good as anybody.  I think he has a better understanding now about getting up to speed immediately and building from there instead of trying to get back to where we were last race.  We need to keep the Cooper Standard Ford F-150 fast all weekend.  That’s our big challenge this week.” 

Both Reddick and Hemric are seeking those elusive victories to lock themselves into the new Camping World Truck Series Eliminator Championship format, but success for Team BKR at The Paperclip is no foreign concept. The Spring event last season saw Logano take over the No. 29, completing a virtual sweep of the day. Logano started off by claiming the Keystone Light Pole Award, and setting a new track record along the way at 19.504 seconds (97.08 mph). Logano then went on to win the event, in an electrifying Green-White-Checkered restart, darting out of line around leader Matt Crafton.

“I always look forward to racing at Martinsville,” Hemric said. “As someone who grew up short-track racing, Martinsville is a place I feel like I can excel, plus I have a lot of experience there. Chad Kendrick and my guys won there last year with Joey Logano and it gives me a lot of confidence going into the weekend. I know we’re excited to get back to the racetrack with our California Clean Power Ford F-150 and show everybody what we’ve got.”

With the NASCAR XFINITY Series enjoying the second of two straight off weeks, the Camping World Truck Series gets the Saturday afternoon spot. The Alpha Energy Solutions 250 is slated for a 2:46 pm ET green flag and can be seen on Fox Sports 1.

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