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Who is the driver to watch? NASCAR America analysts have their say

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New drivers in new places. A returning star. And one looking to be in a class all alone.

Those are just among the drivers NASCAR America’s analysts stated they’d be watching early in the season.

NASCAR America is back for a fourth season at 6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN. NASCAR on NBC analysts Steve Letarte, Kyle Petty, Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett and Parker Kligerman are ready for the start of the season.

With that in mind, they each talked about the drivers they will be watching early in the season.

Steve Letarte: I’m going to have a group of them. I look at Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott. The reason I list those three is we now don’t have Jeff Gordon, we now don’t have Tony Stewart, we now don’t have Carl Edwards. Who is going to step up? There is a vacancy in the star power of the sport. I don’t think who is the most creative on Twitter and who has the coolest commercials that will fill that space. People laugh, but that’s how people in Hollywood create stars. I think it’s who shows up on the race track with fireworks in victory and that person will become a star.

Kyle Petty: I’ll be watching Clint Bowyer to see how last year has affected him — non-competitive for a full year and now will be judged against Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch in the same equipment.

Jeff Burton: Everything I’ve heard about preseason testing is that Hendrick Motorsports has been stupid fast. Like not a little faster than everybody. A lot faster than everybody. I’m curious to see if that continues. I heard in Vegas that Chase Elliott was way faster than everybody else. I heard that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was way faster than everybody else at Phoenix. I’m curious to see if that can continue when it really counts.

Dale Jarrett: The top driver I’m going to be watching at the beginning, at the middle and at the end is Jimmie Johnson as he chases his eighth title. This is history that we’re talking about. I know that there will be people that will say it is a different format but that was the same way that every other driver went about winning their championship with different rules and things. I’m really anxious to see this and how Jimmie and his team perform because this is a new type of pressure. There was pressure getting to seven but now you’re talking about doing something that nobody else has done.

No. 2 on my list is Dale Earnhardt Jr. coming back. I don’t have any doubt that he’ll be back in top form at Daytona because that is his place, but how do things go from there? We’ll certainly be keeping an eye on him around any type of accidents.

Third, how does Daniel Suarez handle this situation that he really wasn’t looking at when he ended his year as the Xfinity champion? I’m sure he was expecting some races in the Cup series but not a full-time deal. How does he handle everything with that? He’s been outstanding to this point but will it continue? There’s a huge learning curve there with the different cars and the different people he will be racing against.

Parker Kligerman: I couldn’t settle on one driver to watch but rather a specific group. The 26-and-under age group. This group is spectacular and will garner intense attention all season. 

Austin Dillon – If he/ RCR can start the season strong like last year, especially at 1.5-mile tracks, I see Austin breaking RCR’s winless streak and being a player in the playoffs. New formats could hurt him in the playoffs though, as will he chase points for segments?

Kyle Larson – I look for very much the same performance as last year unless Ganassi has found a big advantage in the offseason. I don’t see them being much better, but no worse. They will make the playoffs. 

Daniel Suarez – This will be one of the most interesting stories to watch all year as we see if he can adjust to the Cup cars. No prediction, just will observe. 

Erik Jones – I feel with Daniel moving up now, Erik has something to prove. He let his similarly experienced but lesser-heralded teammate get the better of him for a championship. Erik won’t be successful focusing on one driver in a series like Cup, but I find it will be inevitable to compare the two. He won’t want to let Daniel better him again or these two could be in for a rockier relationship as the future of Toyota and JGR. 

Ty Dillon – He will be an X factor. He showed slight promise in his limited Cup starts, and Germain Racing has benefited from its RCR relationship but not to the level of JTG Daugherty. I wonder with what will obviously be increased support from RCR, what this team will be capable of? Nonetheless, he adds again to the incredible under-26 crowd. 

Ryan Blaney – I want Ryan to win a race this year. He without a doubt has the talent to do it. He has the race craft, and is one of the most calm drivers I have ever witnessed. Will his 21 team be able to cut out some of what seemed to be growing pains last year? He will also need to cut out slight mistakes late. The future is bright here in typical Penske fashion. Execution will be key. 

Chris Buescher – Wow, what a change of fortune. There will be growing pains here, but I look for Chris to be a solid top-20 car in points come the end of the season. Once again if he pulls something extraordinary again, we could be talking about a fringe playoff car. All I do know is with this addition and Ty Dillon, the top 20 in points has gotten insanely competitive. 

Chase Elliott – Must win a race. Can win a race. Will win a race. He will be a solid contender in the playoffs and garner the largest portion of the fan base out of this whole group. 

Joey Logano – Insane he is even included in this group. He will win races; many in fact. He will be a formidable contender in the playoffs if he and crew chief Todd Gordon can clean up some late-race strategy issues. As every year since 2014, I think they can be champs.  

Landon Cassill – Is actually 27 now, but I wanted to write “Do you even snap bro?” Also some curious things are occurring at that small Statesville, North Carolina, shop, looking ahead to 2018.

NASCAR America begins its fourth season at 6 p.m. ET on Monday, Feb. 13 on NBCSN

Former champions battling to stay alive in Cup playoffs

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Title hopes could end today for more than one series champion.

Former champ Jimmie Johnson holds that final transfer spot to the next round, but he leads former champion Kyle Busch by seven points and former champion Matt Kenseth by eight points.

“This is our first Homestead of this year,’’ Busch said, referring to the season finale that determines the crown. “We’ve got to come through this race. It’s not a must-win, but it is a must-perform.’’

It will be challenging because Busch, Johnson and Kenseth are all strong at this track.

Johnson’s three wins at Kansas are the most among active drivers. Busch has finished in the top five in five consecutive Kansas races. Kenseth has led 269 of the 536 laps (50.2 percent) run in this event the past two years.

That makes Sunday’s elimination race (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) even more intriguing.

Johnson, who is in his first bid to break a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most Cup championships, finds himself in this spot because of a lack of speed. It’s hurt him in qualifying, costing him stage points, and hurt him throughout the race.

“We are a team and a group that thrives on adversity,’’ said Johnson, who noted he was the slowest of the championship cars last year in Miami and still won his record-tying seventh title.

“Whenever we have been backed into a corner we have always stepped up and have delivered. All the members of this No. 48 team love a challenge, and we are not even close to losing that desire and that fight to be out there and compete and race for the win and race for the championship.’’

Mistakes have plagued the team the past two weeks. At Charlotte, Johnson took off before all the lug nuts were secured on the left front tire and had to back up to have that remedied, losing time. Last week, spotter Earl Barban told the team they could begin work on Johnson’s wrecked car before the red flag was withdrawn. NASCAR parked the team for the infraction.

“There are lessons learned in everything,’’ Johnson said. “When I think of the Charlotte pit stop itself and I think of Talladega and the mistake there that Earl made, really all mistakes come from guys trying as hard as they can. 

“I personally have sympathy for that. I mean, the guys are just trying to do the best job they can and everybody makes mistakes. I make plenty of them, and I think Fridays show that on a regular basis. It’s hard for me to jump on somebody over that.  What I ask of myself is to learn from those lessons and try not to repeat them.’’

Kenseth, winless in his last 48 starts, has a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota but his team has seemed to be the weakest of JGR’s playoff teams throughout the postseason.

“If we don’t run good Sunday, then we don’t deserve to be in the next round anyway,’’ Kenseth said Friday.

Kenseth lamented the performance he and his team had at Kansas in May, finishing 12th.

“You’re only as good as your last race,’’ he said. “Our last one here we ran really, really bad.

Kenseth suggests he might have to knock someone else out of a playoff spot if Kyle Busch runs like he’s capable.

“If I’m Kyle (Busch), I’m feeling pretty good,’’ Kenseth said of his teammate. “He’s crashed two weeks in a row and he’s still in (playoff contention). That’s pretty amazing. Plus he’s been running so good, it’s one of his better places now. So I wouldn’t be very concerned if I was Kyle, I guess, because he’s had the performance.

“Now, (Jimmie Johnson) hasn’t run quite as good as he’s accustomed to running. We haven’t run as good as we’re accustomed to running.”

That Busch is so close after a miserable round (29th at Charlotte and 27th at Talladega) is because he has so many more playoff and stage points than Johnson and Kenseth.

Busch has 41 playoff points. Johnson has 17 and Kenseth five.

Busch’s job is simple he says.

“I look at it as out-finishing (Johnson) and (Blaney) by three, four spots each stage, each round, in order to make up enough points to pass them both,’’ he said. “Whether that’s doable or not, we’ll see. We’ll certainly try. We’ll fight hard, hopefully run up front all day long. We’ve done that this year. We did that here in the spring. We just need to back it up and do it again when it’s crunch time.”

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Justin Allgaier leads Xfinity playoff standings after first race of second round

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Justin Allgaier and two of his JR Motorsports teammates lead the Xfinity playoff standings after the first second round race, the Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway.

Allgaier holds a two-point lead over William Byron and a 11-point lead over Elliott Sadler after finishing fifth in the race.

The top five is completed by Brennan Poole (-28) and Matt Tifft (-33).

Only four of the remaining eight drivers will advance to the championship race.

Click here for the point standings.

Stats, results for Xfinity race at Kansas Speedway

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Christopher Bell claimed his first Xfinity Series win in the Kansas Lottery 300 after passing his teammate, Erik Jones, with four laps left in the race at Kansas Speedway.

Bell only led the final four laps after Jones led 186.

Completing the top five was Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for results.

 

Christopher Bell wins first career Xfinity Series race at Kansas

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Christopher Bell passed teammate Erik Jones for the lead with four laps left in the Kansas Lottery 300, withstood contact from behind by Jones and claimed his first career Xfinity Series win.

Bell, driving the No. 18 Toyota, won in his fifth career start. It comes in the opening race of the second round of the playoffs.

Bell passed Jones in Turn 3 and drifted up to the wall as they exited Turn 4, where Jones then ran into him.

“I haven’t seen it so I can’t really talk much about it,” Bell told NBC. “But I never want to wreck anyone, especially my teammate. I don’t know. My spotter said clear, I drove it in really deep. I felt like I cleared him (watches replay). I don’t know man, I was clear. It’s my first Xfinity win. I’m sorry that Erik couldn’t finish the race. But I’m just stoked. This thing was awesome.”

Jones dominated the race until the pass by Bell. Jones led 186 of 200 laps and swept the first two stages. He finished 15th, one lap down due to damage from running into the back of Bell.

“It’s not dirt racing, he (wasn’t) clear,” Jones told NBC. “I can’t just stop on the top. I didn’t expect him to drive in on the bottom so far he wouldn’t be able to hold his lane. It’s unfortunate. … I thought we were going to race for the win. Unfortunately there wasn’t much of a race. It was more of a wreck.”

Jones has not finished better than 15th in his last four Xfinity starts.

It is the first win for Joe Gibbs Racing since Denny Hamlin won at Darlington Raceway, a five-race stretch. JGR has won 11 Xfinity races this season.

Bell, 22, is a full-time driver in the Camping World Truck Series. He will race full-time for JGR in the Xfinity Series next year.

The top five was Bell, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Justin Allgaier.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Erik Jones

STAGE 2 WINNER: Erik Jones

MORE: Race results

MORE: Points standings

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Elliott Sadler finished seventh after bouncing back from a spin in Turn 4 on Lap 77 and a pit penalty … Tyler Reddick gave the No. 42 Chevrolet its fourth top-two finish in the last five races … William Byron finished fourth and Matt Tifft placed eighth after both had to start from the rear for unapproved adjustments.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: Daniel Hemric finished 18th, a lap down after receiving a penalty for pitting outside his box … Blake Koch finished 23rd, four laps down after getting into the wall with about 35 laps to go … Cole Custer finished 19th, two laps down after pitting for a bad tire with less than five laps to go.

NOTABLE: The 186 laps led by Erik Jones are his most in 75 career Xfinity starts … The cars of Matt Tifft and Ryan Blaney each had one unsecured lug nut after the race. Any penalties will be announced later in the week.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I just don’t think that’s the way to do it. I get that (Christopher Bell) was clear. He wasn’t clear for the run I was having on the top. I was in the gas. There was no way I could slow up enough to let him. It’s just unfortunate. It took me out of the race. … I just don’t really appreciate that. I don’t think many people will.’’ – Erik Jones

WHAT’S NEXT: O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway at 8:30 p.m. ET on Nov. 4 on NBCSN