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Five drivers to watch at Phoenix

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Keep an eye on these drivers Sunday in the final race of the Round of 8 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Kevin Harvick

How many Championship 4 spots are on the line in Sunday’s elimination race at Phoenix?

The standings say two, but among Chase drivers who have yet to clinch, it’s likely they’re thinking just one. That’s because of Harvick’s sheer dominance at Phoenix (eight wins, including six in the last eight races there) and his remarkable ability to win when the chips are down (he’s 18 points behind the cut line to make the Championship 4). Everyone’s luck runs out eventually, but if Harvick does run into trouble Sunday and cannot recover, it still would feel shocking.

Kyle Busch

The defending Sprint Cup champion has figured out how to play the Chase, and that’s made him almost as under the radar as a defending champ can get in the playoffs. But he’s been impressive: His 8.0 average finish in the Chase is the best among the Round of 8 drivers, and that includes a 30th-place finish at Talladega, where he ran in the back by design. If he can’t win Sunday, he definitely is capable of popping a top three that can get him to the championship round.

Matt Kenseth

He has followed the same path as Kyle Busch in the Chase, posting a steady 8.3 average finish. But he hasn’t won at Phoenix since 2002. Furthermore, he has only one top-five finish there since 2008, and he hasn’t led a lap there since the 2012 fall race. No doubt Kenseth can run near the front, but if a ticket to the championship comes down to a handful of points, he needs to be at the front, leading laps and getting as many bonus points as he can.

Joey Logano

Logano finished 18th at Phoenix in March but has shown strong pace as of late. He’s notched three top-three finishes in the past four races, including his win at Talladega and leading a race-high 178 laps in finishing second at Texas. If he carries that speed into Sunday, he’ll have a shot at his second Championship 4 appearance.

Kurt Busch

Carl Edwards erased a 32-point deficit by winning at Texas, so what’s a 34-point gap for a former Sprint Cup champion?

Unfortunately, Busch and the No. 41 team have had a horribly ill-timed dip in performance. They’ve been non-factors so far in the Round of 8 (22nd at Martinsville, 20th at Texas). Busch has rattled off four consecutive top-10 finishes at Phoenix, but that won’t be enough. Can they find the winning pace and pull off a stunner?

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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