Monday, March 26, 2018

Clint Bowyer ends 190-race skid with Martinsville victory

Clint Bowyer was so excited he started his celebratory burnout at the entrance to Turn 3 at Martinsville Speedway, flirting perilously with the outside wall.
Bowyer had ample reason to start the party early, before he got to the frontstretch for a traditional smoke show. With his victory in Monday’s snow-delayed STP 500, he had just ended a winless streak in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series that had reached 190 races, dating to the fall race at Charlotte in 2012.
The victory did more than end a drought. It validated the decision of Stewart-Haas Racing to put him behind the wheel of the No. 14 Ford last year, after team co-owner Tony Stewart retired from NASCAR competition. With his ninth career victory and his first at the .526-mile short track, Bowyer paid off SHR’s investment in his future.
With Kevin Harvick stringing together victories at Atlanta, Las Vegas, and ISM Raceway at Phoenix, Stewart-Haas has won four of the first six races of 2018.
“We learned last year,” said Bowyer, who finished 1.146 seconds ahead of runner-up Kyle Busch in a race that was delayed from Sunday to Monday when an unexpectedly severe snowstorm hit southern Virginia on Saturday afternoon. “Obviously, Harvick came on strong at the end of last year, but it was a learning year for our team and the 14 bunch.
“It was just time.”
Bowyer had a strong feeling before Monday’s race, and he told his young son Cash as much.
“For whatever reason, it felt right driving up here,” said Bowyer, who led 215 laps, all but one (under caution) after taking the lead from third-place finisher Ryan Blaney on Lap 285. “Such a cool place, to be able to drive up through the countryside on a two-lane road and think about the race.
“I told him (Cash) this morning, I was like, ‘Dammit, we’ve got to get a picture in Victory Lane.”
That’s exactly what Bowyer did, avoiding any misstep over the final 200 laps that would have allowed Busch to close in. Busch finished second for the third time in four races and took over the series lead from Martin Truex Jr., who started from the pole and came home fourth.
“We just tried to maintain and keep ourselves in the right position, in the right spots all day long on the long runs and save our stuff as much as we could to see if we couldn’t mount a charge late in the going,” Busch said.
“For us, saving our stuff, the 14 was able to save his stuff, and he was a little bit better than we were. He was able to kind of edge out there through the early laps of firing off each and every time, first 10 or 15 (laps), and kind of get that gap, and then he’d kind of just hold that. He was probably saving just as much as I was trying to save to make sure he had something to go at the end.”
The victory marked Bowyer’s sixth top five in 25 starts at the paper-clip-shaped speedway.
“This place is an acquired taste,” Bowyer said. “When I first got here I was a duck out of water, just like everybody else that starts here at first. I learned from Jimmie Johnson and learned from Jeff Gordon, sometimes the hard way, but nonetheless I learned over the years and finally put it to good use.
“To keep Kyle Busch, one of the best in the business, behind you in those closing laps, the nerves were through the roof. It’s unbelievable how it all came true.”
Harvick ran fifth after a run-in with 12th-place finisher Denny Hamlin near the midpoint of the event. Joey Logano, Alex Bowman, AJ Allmendinger, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski completed the top 10. For Elliott, the top 10 was a significant accomplishment, given that he twice went a lap down to the leader, only to regain the lost circuits as the beneficiary under caution.
Johnson, who leads active drivers with nine victories at Martinsville, finished 15th, a lap down. Blaney led 145 laps, second only to Bowyer, and won the second 130-lap stage of the race. Hamlin led 111 laps early, claimed the first stage victory and, like Blaney, collected a playoff point.
NASCAR announced that four cars had one lug nut not secured in post-race inspection: The No. 3 of Austin Dillon, No. 12 of Ryan Blaney, No. 34 of Michael McDowell and No. 42 of Kyle Larson.

John Hunter Nemechek edges Benjamin for Truck Series win at Martinsville

 In a race delayed for two days by a freak snowstorm in southern Virginia, John Hunter Nemechek charged to the front on a restart with 31 laps left on Monday and held off Kyle Benjamin to win the Alpha Energy Solutions 250 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race by a mere .106 seconds.
The victory was the first at Martinsville for Nemechek, who had two previous runner-up finishes at the .526-mile short track. This time, despite Benjamin pounding his rear bumper in the final corner, Nemechek earned the grandfather clock trophy that goes to the race winner.
“I’ve finished second here multiple times so, tick, tock – we finally got a clock,” Nemechek said. “It’s going to be awesome to take that thing home.”
Nemechek picked up his sixth career win in the Truck Series in his third start of the season, and he did it with a skeleton staff at the race shop owned by his father, Joe Nemechek.
“I can’t thank everyone on our staff enough – everyone who pours their heart and soul into this deal,” Nemechek said. “There’s only four guys in our shop this year, so it’s really cool to be able to come back over here to the Truck Series …
“Congrats to all these guys – these guys deserve it.”
After Nemechek grabbed the top spot on Lap 220 of 250, he held it through three subsequent cautions. Nemechek cleared Benjamin after the final restart on Lap 244, and though Benjamin closed on the No. 8 Chevrolet over the last seven laps, finally getting to the bumper in the final corner, he needed a few more laps to make a concerted run at the victory.
“We had a really good truck, mostly for long runs, and unfortunately, it came down to a short run,” said Benjamin, who was making his Martinsville debut. “It’s Martinsville, so I figured I had to give him a run for his money in the last corner.”
Benjamin had a lead of more than one second over Todd Gilliland when a debris caution slowed the race on Lap 214 and gave Nemechek the chance he needed on the subsequent restart. The shuffling of the order, at least, alleviated one case of divided loyalties.
David Gilliland was co-owner of the No. 54 Toyota Benjamin was driving, and his son Todd was behind the wheel of the No. 4 Toyota of Kyle Busch Motorsports. After the restart on Lap 220, Todd Gilliland brushed the wall and lost track position with a pit stop under caution on Lap 234. He finished 14th.
Pole winner Ben Rhodes led the first 23 laps on Saturday before rain and snow halted the race. With heavy snow falling Saturday night and early Sunday morning, NASCAR was forced to postpone the finish until Monday.
Rhodes won both the first and second stages of the race, collecting two playoff points, but severe trouble with his right front tire on a Lap 145 pit stop after the second stage dropped him to 15th in the running order.
Rhodes never recovered from the loss of track position and came home 12th.
Johnny Sauter lost two laps changing a battery after losing power on Lap 224 and getting rear-ended by Matt Crafton. Sauter finished 19th but retained the series lead by 29 points over Grant Enfinger, who ran fourth on Monday.
Brett Moffitt, who pitted late for new tires, fought his way up to third at the finish and is third in points, 31 behind Sauter.
Noah Gragson, Myatt Snider, Timothy Peters, Harrison Burton, Austin Hill and Justin Haley completed the top 10 in Monday’s race. 

Newman leads Kansas past Duke 85-81 in OT for Final Four bid

Kansas is going back to the Final Four.
It's hard to argue that Duke shouldn't be headed there as well after the most riveting show of the NCAA tournament.
Malik Newman and the top-seeded Jayhawks got past their Elite Eight road block Sunday, knocking off second-seeded Duke 85-81 in overtime to clinch the program's first trip to the Final Four since 2012.
Newman scored all 13 of the Jayhawks' points in OT and finished with a career-high 32 to lead Kansas (31-7).
The Jayhawks will face fellow top seed Villanova on Saturday in San Antonio - the site of KU's last title over Memphis in 2008 - after snapping a two-game losing skid in the regional finals.
"Everything we've been through...we do it for moments like this," Kansas star Devonte' Graham said. "Especially after the last two years, getting over the hump. It just feels (perfect)."
This was college basketball at its best, two blue bloods trading blows for 45 minutes in what was arguably the best game of March so far, one that featured 18 lead changes and 11 ties.
Had Grayson Allen's bank shot to end regulation gone half an inch in a different direction, it might be Duke heading to South Texas.
But it didn't, and instead the Jayhawks are moving on.
"It was an honor to play in this game," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who remained tied with UCLA legend John Wooden with 12 Final Four performances. "I think both teams were deserving of winning."
Newman, a redshirt sophomore who came on late this season, drilled his fifth and final 3 from the corner to make it 81-78 with 1:49 left. Newman followed with four straight free throws, and the Jayhawks' defense stiffened enough to knock the favored Blue Devils out of the tournament.
Trevon Duval scored 20 points, two shy of a career high, for Duke. Freshman star and future lottery pick Marvin Bagley added 16 points and 10 rebounds in what could have been his final game for the Blue Devils (29-8), who fell shy of their first Final Four trip since winning the national title in 2015.
Allen had 12 points for the Blue Devils, but the senior's try at the regulation buzzer went in and then out and then off the rim before spinning away to force overtime.
"I was trying to drive right, he cut me off. Went back left. Their big stepped into help. I had to get a shot up over him. I tried to bank it in and it about went in," said Allen, who finished his brilliant career with 1,996 points.
THE BIG PICTURE
Kansas: This might be the unlikeliest of coach Bill Self's three Final Four squads. They are not stacked with obvious future NBA starters and they lost three times at home this season. But the Jayhawks banded together to win the Big 12's regular season and conference titles and now the Midwest Region. By doing so, they proved to their coach that they were hardly soft - a claim that Self had made often earlier in the season. And with the final buzzer about to sound and the outcome suddenly in focus, Self clenched both of his fists and lifted his arms in the air for a celebration years in the making.
Duke: The Blue Devils might see four of their freshman stars bolt for the NBA Draft, an expected exodus led by Bagley, a likely top-five pick. Duke will also lose Allen, one of the best players in school history. Don't cry for Coach K, who has four five-star recruits committed to join the program next year. But this season will likely be remembered as a lost opportunity - and for that Allen shot that went agonizingly out of the rim.
PIVOTAL MOMENT
Duval was a revelation in the opening half, scoring 13 points to give the Blue Devils a 36-33 lead that at times felt like it could've been bigger. But the Jayhawks opened the second with a 13-3 run, forcing Duke to answer quickly. The Blue Devils did just that, time and time again, until it had the lead in the final minute. But Kansas senior Svi Mykhailiuk drilled a 3 with 25.7 seconds left in the second half to knot the game at 72-all.
THE NUMBERS
Kansas outrebounded Duke 47-32, a staggering stat given that the Jayhawks barely outrebounded their opponents heading into the game. ...Lagerald Vick had 14 points, Devonte' Graham had 11 with six boards and six assists and Mykhailiuk had 11 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while helping defend Bagley. "Even though Malik scored a lot of points, I don't think that anybody had a better game than Svi did," Self said. ... The Blue Devils were 7 of 29 on 3s.
HE SAID IT
"We didn't even talk about going to the Final Four. All we talked about is Duke. I do think playing Duke in that game helped us. It was fun. I would be proud to have coached in that game even if the outcome is different," Self said.
UP NEXT
Duke: Welcoming the next batch of one-and-done stars.
Kansas: The Jayhawks are in the Final Four for the 15th time.

Villanova returns to Final Four, beating Texas Tech 71-59

With all of the underdogs and upsets that have upended the NCAA tournament, no one has managed to come close to Villanova.
The 2016 national champions are headed back to the Final Four, thanks to a fourth straight double-digit victory in a month of March where they've played every bit like the No. 1 seed they earned.
"This tournament's a crazy tournament. Anybody can beat anybody," guard Jalen Brunson said after the Wildcats beat Texas Tech 71-59 in a cold-shooting East regional championship on Sunday to send Villanova back to the Final Four for the second time in three years.
"The underdog mentally, they may have it. But, honestly, they believe they're good. That's why they're in that position. That's (also) why we're in that position," Brunson said. "We're a good team, and we believe we can keep getting better."
The Wildcats (34-4) will play fellow No. 1 seed Kansas, which beat Duke 85-81 in overtime later Sunday. They will join 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago and its telegenic nun , along with No. 3 seed Michigan in the national semifinals on Saturday in San Antonio.
Sister Jean, get ready for Father Rob.
"I very much look forward to meeting Sister Jean," said the Rev. Rob Hagan, the priest on the Villanova bench. "I was 12 years of Catholic School and taught by the nuns. I have great respect for the Nuns. Usually what Sister says is what goes."
But if these two Catholic schools - one Jesuit, one Augustinian - meet in the national championship game, the Wildcats won't be without spiritual support of their own.
"He's our rock," said guard Donte DiVincenzo, who scored eight points. "He keeps us level-headed to make sure we don't get too high or too low. So to be able to share that moment with him was actually real fun."
Eric Paschall had 12 points and a career-high 14 rebounds, Brunson scored 15, and DiVincenzo also had eight of the Wildcats' season-high 51 rebounds. After starting four guards, Texas Tech (27-10) grabbed just 33 boards and shot just 18 free throws compared to 35 for Villanova to miss a chance to play for a championship in its home state.
"We knew they were a great 3-point shooting team and talented players, but we also knew how tough they were," Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. "We knew the identity of their team was the toughness and physicality, and that proved to be true."
The teams matched each other with 33 percent shooting from the floor - Villanova's lowest since 2015- and the Wildcats made just 4 of 24 from beyond the arc. One of the most prolific 3-point shooting teams in NCAA history, they need seven to set a Division I single-season record.
They'll get that chance in the Final Four.
"Wasn't really a pretty offensive game. But we played pretty good defensively too," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team spent eight weeks in two different stints as the No. 1 team in The Associated Press Top 25 this season.
"That's why I give Texas Tech credit, they did a great job," Wright said. "But we don't rely on our shooting. There's a lot more to the game. Our guys take pride in that. We never worry about missing shots. It's fun when they go in, but we don't worry about missing them."
PLAYING THROUGH PAIN
Texas Tech star Keenan Evans scored 12 points for the Red Raiders, and revealed after the game he has been playing with a broken toe since injuring his foot in mid-February against Baylor.
"We take a lot of pride just knowing that the amount of work we put in to get here," Evans said. "We came short of what the ultimate goal was, but just for us digging down and us going through injuries ... we took a lot of pride with it."
Texas Tech had never reached the Elite Eight in the 93-year history of the program but easily handled Purdue in the Sweet 16.
CUTTING DOWN NETS
It's Villanova's third trip to the Final Four in Wright's tenure; in 2009, they also advanced from the Boston regional before losing in the national semifinals. Four players remain from the team that won it all two years ago.
"You just see how together we are. Every Villanova team I've been on has been like that," Brunson said. "Every time you get to do it is special, every time you're on that court with those group of guys, it's special."
BAD START
Villanova quickly fell behind 7-0 and trailed 9-1 - the largest deficit the Wildcats had faced in the tournament. But they scored 14 of the next 18 points to lead and closed the half on a 35-14 run for a 36-23 lead at the break. The 23 points was the lowest-scoring half of the season for the Red Raiders.
After falling behind by as many as 15 early in the second, Texas Tech got within eight points with under seven minutes remaining, and made it 52-47 on Brandon Francis' 3-pointer with 6:06 left. They nearly cut it to three points when Evans found Zach Smith in the lane, but Paschall blocked him and sparked a fast break that ended with Phil Booth's basket at the other end.
Texas Tech made only two baskets from there. Villanova had only one in the last three minutes but made its last 12 free throws.
SHOWTIME
Brunson finished with only four assists, but he had the ball in his hands for much of Villanova's possessions and didn't seem troubled by the defense.
Beard compared them to the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers that played across the way in the old Boston Garden.
"It was like watching Magic Johnson back down. They've got (Michael) Cooper in one corner," Beard said. "He's a multi-dimensional player. He can play at the next level for a lot of reasons. I think his toughness and intangibles ... are at the top of that list."