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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

NASCAR America: Clint Bowyer’s parties are legendary

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Clint Bowyer parties are not only legendary, they have the same effect as a black hole on unsuspecting passersby, as Steve Letarte found out in Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America.

“The cab driver comes up, goes inside, decides he is going to clock out – stays at the party,” Bowyer explained. “(The fare) is in the car waiting on him. He’s still inside partying. So somebody (else) got in the cab and made several laps on the go-kart track that night.”

It was eventually returned – muddied and with ungrateful patrons.

The cab driver is not the only person to get sucked into the vortex of a Bowyer party. Pizza delivery men, famous singers, and countless others have made this mistake of wandering too close.

“I’ve known Clint a long time, so none of this is shocking to me,” Letarte said as he correctly answered every bizarre question aimed at him.

For more of what has happened at one of Bowyer’s parties, watch the video above.

NASCAR America at 5:30 p.m. ET: Clint Bowyer joins Dale Jr. at the Big Oak Table

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5:30-6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is joined at the Big Oak table by Clint Bowyer and Steve Letarte. Krista Voda hosts.

On today’s edition of Wednesdays with Dale Jr.

• Clint Bowyer, a few weeks removed from his victory at Martinsville, joins Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte at the Big Oak Table to discuss the season, short track racing, the move to Stewart-Haas Racing last year and snapping his 190-race winless streak.
• Have a question for Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Clint Bowyer? Hit us up on Twitter using #WednesDale to get your question answered on air.
• Bowyer’s Martinsville victory celebration included some Moonshine & Fire. We’ll put his personal party knowledge to the test with this week’s game “Did This Really Happen at a Clint Bowyer Party?”

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5:30 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Bump & Run: Who will be next to challenge Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick?

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Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have combined to win five of the first eight races of the season. Who is most likely to break up their dominance?

Nate Ryan: Any of the Penske drivers. That team seems to be next in class behind Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Dustin Long: Ryan Blaney. Has shown a good bit of speed lately and seems to be close to scoring a win or two in the near future.

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Larson is poised to wreak havoc on the field if he can put together complete races without any miscues, like his spin in Bristol. He’s the defending Richmond winner, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can carry his momentum there.

Dan Beaver: If it’s possible to overlook the defending champion, that is what seems to be happening with Martin Truex Jr. With five wins and 14 top fives in his last 18 races, he needs to forget about his bad luck in the last two races and concentrate on all the things the team has been doing right.

Parker KligermanWhen I look at the current landscape, I feel the drivers that can break their stranglehold will either be driving a JGR Toyota or Team Penske Ford. 

Ryan Blaney (30-race winless drought), Jimmie Johnson (31), Joey Logano (35), Ryan Newman (40 races) and Kurt Busch (43) are in droughts. Who is the first among this group to return to Victory Lane?

Nate Ryan: Logano, possibly as early as Saturday. Blaney would be 1A as it’s only a matter of time for Team Penske.

Dustin Long: Ryan Blaney. He’s been strong lately, finishing eighth at Auto Club, third at Martinsville and fifth at Texas before crashing out of the Bristol race while in the lead. His time is coming. 

Daniel McFadin: I think it comes down to either Logano or Blaney with Logano likely to win at Richmond or Talladega. He’s finished in the top two in the last two Richmond races and he’s one of the best plate racers of this generation

Dan Beaver: As consistently strong as he has run, it is difficult to believe Logano has not already won. Along with Kyle Busch, he is the only driver with seven top-10s in the first eight races. Five of these were sixth-place finishes or better. Returning to the site of his last win, Logano could break through this week – and this time it will not be encumbered.

Parker Kligerman: I believe Ryan Blaney will win first. He is showing some serious speed and seems to be in great form. I feel that crew chief Jeremy Bullins and Ryan will want to start to assert themselves inside Team Penske as the title contender I feel they will be this year. 

After the perceived success of PJ1 before the resumption of Monday’s race, should NASCAR consider doing mid-race treatments with a traction compound to tracks?

Nate Ryan: Yes. While it’s worth pondering whether it might be unfairly tampering with the competition to reapply traction compound during a race, the circumstances of a postponement should allow it, and the ends certainly justified the means in Bristol’s case.

Dustin Long: NASCAR should do what is necessary to provide the best type of racing for the fans. 

Daniel McFadin: It’s a toss-up for me, but I think I’d rather they didn’t. It’s more interesting to have teams have to account for the loss of a racing element over time, just like they do with tires. That happened in Bristol and the race was great from beginning to end. Also, applying it mid-race just makes for longer races.

Dan Beaver: If NASCAR can find a way to substantially improve the action, they should do whatever is necessary. Many dirt tracks around the country take time to water the surface before the A-Mains to develop a second groove. NASCAR still has some lessons that can be learned from the grass roots.

Parker Kligerman: Why not? I feel until we find a way to stop hearing the words “loss of downforce” from following other cars, NASCAR should continue to look at all available tools to add in variables that can cause uncertainty for the teams and drivers and create changes in track state like we saw at Bristol to cause the most dynamic races possible. 

Kyle Busch aims for three straight wins this weekend at Richmond

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Kyle Busch seeks to match a mark set by Kevin Harvick earlier this season. If Busch can win the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway, it will be his third consecutive Cup victory.

Harvick dominated the field earlier this year with his three-race winning streak at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway. Kyle Busch finished runner-up to Harvick twice in that stretch. That kicked off a six-race streak of top-three finishes, including wins at Texas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway.

MORE: Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. discuss fallout from 2008 Richmond race

Busch’s recent stats at Richmond would not necessarily put him at the top of the list of drivers mostly likely to win this week. He has not finished in the top five there in his last three attempts and hasn’t won since 2012, which was his fourth consecutive victory in the spring event. Busch has not yet won a fall Richmond race.

Included in his more recent Richmond results is a pair of back-to-back runner-up finishes in fall 2015 and spring 2016. More importantly, he is bolstered by his current winning streak as well as his feeling about the track.

“I love Richmond,” Busch said in a press release. “It’s one of my favorite race tracks and one of my best race tracks. I love being able to go there and, of course, we put on some pretty good races there. We won four spring races in a row and I would have loved to have made it five or more. It’s a neat race track and it’s certainly an excitement track and there is a lot of action that happens there.”

Last week, Busch won for the seventh time at Bristol – adding to his record as the winningest active driver there. The skill needed there will not translate to Richmond, however.

“Richmond and Bristol are more than oil and water, more than day and night,” Busch said. “Bristol is an attack-type race track yet, when you attack, you can get yourself in trouble. Richmond is a very methodical race track and you have to be very – you’re very on edge there all the time, especially corner entry, getting into the corners. You’re always loose there and you have to be able to be loose there in order to carry the speed through the middle and have good drive off.

“We’re back to two night races at Richmond again and sometimes nighttime just feeds itself with not as much grip and makes it to where the bottom is the preferred lane. Daytime allows the race track to widen out and be hotter where, on a cooler racetrack, you’re looking for where the rubber is for at least a little while until the whole track rubbers in, and then you have to go back to the bottom, anyway.”

While Busch has slipped outside the top five in his last three Richmond starts, his career average there is the best among active drivers. With a 7.4 career average at Richmond, he tops second-place Harvick’s 8.5. The most impressive statistic about Busch this week is that he has finished all but one of 10,026 laps of competition in 25 starts.

Busch has won three consecutive races once before in his career – at Kentucky Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July 2015.

The last two times he has had back-to-back Cup wins, however, Busch finished outside the top 25 in his next attempt – most recently following wins at New Hampshire and Dover International Speedway with a 29th at Charlotte Motor Speedway last October.