Looking ahead to the Xfinity Series in 2017

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The 2016 Xfinity Series season ended four days ago in historic fashion, with Daniel Suarez becoming the first foreign-born driver to win a national NASCAR title.

The lower-tier series will return to action on Feb. 25 at Daytona International Speedway in the Powershares 300.

Even though that race is 94 days ahead, here’s a quick look at what storylines to look forward to next season.

Cup Driver Limits

Earlier this season NASCAR announced new limits on the amount of Sprint Cup regulars could compete in in its lower national series. Beginning next season, current Cup regulars who have been in Cup for five years or more can only compete in 10 races each. They are banned from competing in the Dash 4 Cash races, all of the Chase races and the regular season finale at Richmond International Raceway. Also, any drivers earning points in the Cup series are banned from competing in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

JR Motorsports Expanding

After fielding two full-time cars and two part-time entries in 2016, the team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. will now have four full-time cars on the track. In addition to Elliott Sadler‘s No. 1 team and the No. 7 of Justin Allgaier, JR Motorsports will have former Sprint Cup driver Michael Annett and Camping World Truck Series Rookie of the Year William Byron in rides. The team will also continue to run its “All-Star” No. 88 car with drivers from the Cup series.

Stewart-Haas Racing Branching Out

After eight seasons in the Sprint Cup Series, including two championships, Stewart-Haas Racing is expanding its operation to the Xfinity Series. SHR will field Cole Custer in his rookie season driving the No. 00 Ford. Custer will be sponsored by Haas Automation. Custer drove for JR Motorsports this season in the Camping World Truck Series and earned 14 top-10 finishes in route to a 10th-place finish in the points standings. He also made five Xfinity Series starts for JRM this season with a top finish of fourth at Charlotte in May.

Team Penske Grows by Two

After years of fielding a single full-time car in the No. 22 with occasional appearances by a second car, Team Penske will field two full-time cars in 2017. No driver or sponsorship announcements have been made. The No. 22 team failed to win a race this season for the first time since it began competing full-time. The No. 12 car won both of the  races it entered at Watkins Glen International and Charlotte.

Movin’ On Up

After two season of part-time schedules in the Xfinity and Truck Series, Matt Tifft is finally going full-time in Xfinity. The 20-year-old will drive full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing after driving the No. 18 Toyota in select races this year. His season was shortened by missing most of the summer to recovering from brain surgery to remove a low-grade tumor.

Also moving up to the Xfinity Series are former Brad Keselowski Racing teammate Tyler Reddick and Daniel Hemric. After 30 top-10 finishes in 46 Truck starts, Hemric will drive full-time for Richard Childress Racing. Reddick, who was voted the Truck Series Most Popular Driver, will split time in Chip Ganassi Racing’s No.42 car with Kyle Larson.

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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