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Kurt Busch hopes to be the first and last ‘Sprint’ Cup champion

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There are only five races left in the ‘Sprint’ era of NASCAR.

The cell phone company departs as the title sponsor of the Cup Series following the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20. Clinching this particular title would have a little more meaning for Kurt Busch.

Busch, at 25 and in his fourth year in the series, kicked off Sprint’s 12-year relationship with NASCAR in 2004 when he won the inaugural title, then the Nextel Cup. A corporate merger made it the Sprint Cup in 2008.

NEW YORK - DECEMBER 03: 2004 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series Champion Kurt Busch stands on top of his car while posing with the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup trophy prior the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup Awards outside of the Waldorf Astoria on December 3, 2004 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kurt Busch in New York City in December 2004 prior to the Nextel Cup Awards. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

“That would be fun to be able to bookend the championship run with Sprint sponsorship of our series,” Busch said Tuesday during a test at Homestead-Miami Speedway  “It’s been an amazing run for them, a brand builder for both NASCAR and a cell phone company. When you’re the first champion with a new sponsor it came with some fun responsibilities and good promotions.”

Busch won the 2004 title, the first of the “Chase” era, while driving for Roush Fenway Racing.

“It’s neat to see what (Sprint) benefited from and here we are now, it’s at the end,” Busch said. “2004 was a long time ago. It’s time to upgrade the championship trophy to a 2016 one.”

If Busch can survive in the standings until the finale, he’ll have the chance to score the third Cup title for Stewart-Haas Racing – where he has been since 2014. Heading into the Alabama 500 at Talladega, Busch is sixth on the Chase grid, 17 points up on the bubble.

“Last year we came out of Kansas with a top-(six) finish and had 13 points as our cushion,” Busch said. “This year we have a 17-point cushion after we finished 13th (at Kansas). It’s a numbers game, and we feel comfortable where we sit.”

But the fates of Busch and nine other drivers hinge on their result at Talladega, the 2.66-mile track notorious for wrecks that threaten to eliminate half the field.

“All we have to do at Talladega is finish 16th or better, no matter what anybody else does,” said Busch of his best possible clinch scenario outside a win. “It’s the same as having sixth or better or 36th or better because you never know when you’ll get caught up in the big wreck and end up 36th or worse.”

In his 17 years competing in the Sprint Cup Series, Busch has never won a points paying restrictor-plate race. He’s finished third five times at Talladega but hasn’t earned a top five there since 2007.

His average finish at Talladega through 31 starts? Just on target at 16.3.

“It’s nice to have points in our pockets,” said Busch. “That’s the best feeling.”

Jamie McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in must-win scenario at Kansas

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Going into Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway, Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are likely to be among the four drivers eliminated from playoff contention.

Stenhouse is 22 points back from the final transfer spot and McMurray is 29 points back.

Both drivers talked with NASCAR America before the race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) about being in a must-win scenario to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Watch the above video for the interviews.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Kevin Harvick. His first oval win since Kansas Speedway a year ago validates the team’s 1.5-mile speed in the playoffs.

Dustin Long

Kyle Busch. Mark it down, he wins and advances to the next round to continue his quest for a second title.

Daniel McFadin

Martin Truex Jr. keeps his foot on the throat of the competition and gets his sixth win of the year at a 1.5-mile track.

Jerry Bonkowski

Kyle Larson is starting 13th but expect him to get to the top five within the first 20-30 laps. He needs a strong run to give him momentum heading into the Round of 8 and he gets it Sunday.

Furniture Row Racing crew member dies of heart attack

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas – James “Jim” Watson, a fabricator for Furniture Row Racing, died Saturday night after suffering a heart attack, the team stated Sunday morning. Watson was 55.

A native of Greenfield, Wisconsin, Watson had been a member of Furniture Row Racing since February. He worked for Roush Fenway Racing from 2006-15 and spent last season with HScott Motorsports. He was a long-time racer, competing in dirt late models and asphalt super late models throughout Southeast Wisconsin.

Watson was with the team this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

He is survived by wife Laurie and daughter Brittany.

“On behalf of Furniture Row Racing we extend our deepest sympathies to Jim’s family,” said Joe Garone, president of Furniture Row Racing. “He was an outstanding and talented member of our racing family, whose life was dedicated to racing since his early days as a race-car driver in Wisconsin. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Jim’s wife Laurie, daughter Brittany and to his entire family and friends. Our No. 77 and 78 teams will be racing with heavy hearts today.”

Ryan Blaney ready to prove doubters wrong

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Ryan Blaney has a bit of a chip on his shoulder this weekend.

The 23-year-old driver for the Wood Brothers seeks to hold off three former champions today at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) for a spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs.

Even though former champions Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth trail Blaney in the points, some say Blaney won’t hold them off and advance to the Round of 8.

“I’ve heard that all week that we don’t really deserve to be here, so that kind of ticked me off a little bit,’’ Blaney said Friday after qualifying.

“They just say we’ve been kind of overachieving or they didn’t expect us to be here. Those little things kind of make you a little bit irritated because our guys do just as good a job as anybody. They deserve to be here. They work their tails off like anybody else. Hopefully, we can prove that Sunday.’’

MORE: Wood Brothers lifeline started with a phone call

Blaney’s job, though, will be more difficult. He will start last in the 40-car field because his car failed inspection after qualifying. Kenseth (third), Busch (seventh) and Johnson (13th) all start in the top 15 and should be able to work their way into the top 10 to score stage points by Lap 80 when the first stage ends. Blaney will be challenged to do so and could see his advantage on each shrink. 

There’s hope for Blaney because he posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s final Cup practice. But he ranked ninth in average over 10 consecutive laps — behind Busch and Kenseth.

“There’s definitely things we can improve on,’’ Blaney said after placing third in Saturday’s Xfinity race. “(In the Cup race) everyone is going to be kind of married to the wall pretty early in a run. It might be hard to pass. Hopefully, we can work the bottom. I think the Cup cars might wear the top out, might over-rubber it where we have to move down a little bit.’’

With starting in the rear of the field, changing weather conditions (the wind is not expected to be as prevalent today as Saturday) and facing an elimination race, it would be easy for the pressure build on a driver and team.

“I really don’t feel that it’s a different weekend,’’ he said, alluding to the battle for the final playoff spots. “More people are paying attention to it because it’s a big deal. There’s four cars pretty much going for two spots. We try to approach it as any other weekend. It will be more challenging coming from the back.’’

Along with starting at the rear for the penalty, Blaney’s team had to pick last for pit stalls for failing inspection after qualifying.

His team would have had the third pick and he would have had an opening either before or after his stall, making it easier to either enter or exit. Now, he’ll be sandwiched between Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Provided both stay on the lead lap, Blaney could face challenges squeezing into his stall throughout the race.

“It doesn’t help our situation for sure,’’ Blaney said. “Those are two good cars. We’ll kind of be pitched between them all day. Dale actually sent me a text. Teams work well with each other about that. That will be tough for us. That will be another challenge.’’

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