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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

Erik Jones fails to live up to Bristol intro song, but earns best finish of Cup career

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Erik Jones made a pivotal mistake leading up to Saturday night’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

He was one of six who forgot to choose their intro song prior to the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race.

“I don’t even know who picked my song,” Jones said.

The Furniture Row Racing driver can thank someone named “DJ Du” for stepping up.

As a result, Jones was “a little surprised” when he appeared at the top of a ramp in Turn 3 to be introduced as the pole-sitter for the night’s race. The sounds of DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” echoed throughout “Thunder Valley.”

“DJ Du” turned out not to be a prophet. But Jones did everything he could during the ensuing 500 laps to back up the song selection.

Making his 27th Cup start and his second at the .533-mile track, Jones led a career-high 260 laps. He matched wits with Kyle Busch, now a six-time Bristol winner, and Matt Kenseth, a four-time Bristol winner and the driver he’ll succeed in the No. 20.

The battle resulted in Jones finishing second, the best result of his Cup career.

Jones led nine times, swapping the lead with Busch, his former Camping World Truck Series owner, 10 times – three times in the last 139 laps.

Despite the lack of his first Cup trophy, Jones is confident it was the most fun he’s had to date in the Cup Series.

Though he’s only 21, the race reminded him of his good ol’ days driving modifieds.

“It takes you back to, you know, late model racing really more than anything,” Jones said. “You’re just on the gas. You’re not saving tires. You’re just hammer down and getting everything you can, which is a lot of fun. It’s hard on you as a driver, it wears you out, but you definitely have a lot of fun.”

Bristol, a track he’s won at twice in the Xfinity Series, reminds him of Winchester Speedway in Indiana, a .5-mile oval where he’s won three Winchester 400.

And he almost won like at Winchester.

Even Busch, who won all three Bristol races this week, thought it was Jones’ race to lose before he took the lead for good with 56 laps to go.

“He’s a phenomenal talent and a great race car driver,” said Busch, who first discovered Jones when he finished third to Jones in the 2012 Snowball Derby. “We knew that a long time ago. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing I found him or a bad thing I found him because one of these days I’m going to lose to him and I’m not going to be thrilled, but I’m still going to congratulate him.

“I thought today was actually going to be that day.”

Jones, who first experienced Cup action in 2015 when he relieved Denny Hamlin mid-race at Bristol, said leading a race for so long is a “burden,” especially for someone still figuring out how things work in the Cup Series.

“You’re letting all those guys be behind you get better and better and improve on their cars to gain up on you,” Jones said. “It’s hard to get your car better when you’re out front. You don’t really know what you need.”

If there was a burden, Jones said there was no pressure to win, even with a potential playoff spot waiting for him if he did visit victory lane.

With two races left in the regular season, he is 16th in the points standings but outside the 16-driver playoff grid.

“This was our best shot to win,” Jones said. “I was just actually really calm this week. I really had a sense we were going to run really well. … I feel really confident every time I come to Bristol. And, you know, kind of felt like we were going to be running up front, but just didn’t have enough.”

Saturday’s 500 laps left Jones the “most wore out” he’s been this season following a race, but he knows they’ll be instrumental when he finally gets to celebrate as Busch did Saturday night.

Said Jones: “You got to lose one to win one, right?”

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Denny Hamlin has mixed emotions over 3rd place Bristol finish

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 23rd in Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Bristol Night Race.

Martin Truex Jr. finished 21st. Clint Bowyer was 19th, while Chase Elliott was 18th.

All of those drivers would have given anything to trade their final results for a third-place showing like Denny Hamlin came away with.

But Hamlin? He wasn’t so sure whether to look at his finish as satisfying or disappointing.

“Half and half,” Hamlin replied.

Something was missing for him in the race, and it was difficulty on restarts that may have kept him from a win.

“With the track position, we definitely could have held those guys off,” Hamlin said. “We caught them a little bit in that last run, but I restarted on the bottom so many times that it’s one of those weekends where I would love that cone rule where you can pick what lane you want to go in on restarts.

“I’d be willing to start 12th on the outside versus third on the inside. It’s just I got killed on restarts all day, but we did a really good job of bouncing back and good finish.”

 

What drivers said after Bristol Night Race

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Kyle Busch – Winner: “That one was a lot harder. Man, Erik Jones put up a whale of a fight. That all I had. I was running with my tongue hanging. My arms were Jell-O and my throat hurts, but man that’s awesome. Can’t say enough about everybody on my Joe Gibbs Racing team. (Crew chief) Adam Stevens and the guys are phenomenal. Car might not have been perfect, but I’m never perfect. I never feel like we’re perfect, but this Caramel Camry was fast. So proud of these guys, so proud of my team, so proud of Joe Gibbs Racing.”

ERIK JONES – Finished 2nd: “This is one I had circled when we ‑ really all season, but especially when we got knocked out at New Hampshire with a flat tire. That was like, Okay, we need to win. What’s the tracks coming up that are our best shot? Bristol was definitely, you know, the one where I thought we were going to have the best shot to win. I felt like we had a really strong car in the spring. Felt like I could improve myself and improve what we had in the race car compared to what we had there. We did that. We qualified on the pole, you know, led a ton of laps. We just didn’t quite keep up with it. So, yeah, this was our best shot to win. Did I feel any pressure? No. I was just actually really calm this week. I really had a sense we were going to run really well. I had a really good feeling about it. I feel really confident every time I come to Bristol. And, you know, kind of felt like we were going to be running up front, but just didn’t have enough.’’

Denny Hamlin — Finished 3rd: “We caught them a little bit in that last run, but I restarted on the bottom so many times that it’s one of those weekends where I would love that cone rule where you can pick what lane you want to go in on restarts. I’d be willing to start 12th on the outside versus third on the inside. It’s just I got killed on restarts all day, but we did a really good job of bouncing back and good finish.”

Matt Kenseth – Finished 4th: “I guess there’s only two races left, so somebody is going to make it by points. I don’t know where we are. I don’t even look at it, to be honest with you. If you don’t get a win in the next two weeks, hopefully we get in. Obviously we’ll be really far behind. If we do get in, we’re running a lot better as of late. We’ve had some solid finishes. Last week wasn’t. But we’ve definitely been closer to being in contention for wins.

Kurt Busch – Finished 5th: “We’ve been struggling with the VHT on the bottom, so I just knew we needed to wait and wait and wait, and I was hopeful at lap 250 that it would come to us. I pushed it too hard then and got some right-front tire damage on the fender. We had to work through that, but I think at the end we got in position because Tony Gibson made a good call and put us on fresher tires than the competition and it was the old fun Bristol for me.”

Ryan Newman – Finished 6th: “I got too fast on pit road, which cost us, but guys did a good job in the pits, which is a nice change. Overall, I’m proud of the team effort. Fought hard and kind of got lucky there with the tires. I don’t know that we had a sixth-place car, but we did tonight.”

Trevor Bayne – Finished 7th: “I feel like the last month we had strategy, things went our way and we’ve gotten results from it. Here at Bristol, Roush Fenway always gives us good cars and we’ve had really good runs the last four or five races. Our Ford was fast tonight at the end when it mattered. At one point we blew a tire, hit the fence. I thought we were going to get lucky and get back on the lead lap. Got on the lead lap, got a caution and put new tires on it and started passing cars. We’ll keep working on it. Obviously we need to win. That’s what our goal is.”

Kevin Harvick – Finished 8th: “We had a good Busch Outdoors Ford, but we were just tighter than we needed to be on the next-to-last run. Then the tire strategy just didn’t go our way at the end. Who would have thought we would run all the way to the end under green? It was a good car.”

Kyle Larson – Finished 9th: “It was a good race up until the last stop. I felt like we had a shot to win and then something went on with the left rear (tire) maybe. I didn’t get a good stop and lost all of our track position and that was kind of all she wrote. Just got stuck behind and then guys had better tires than I did and it just is what it is.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished 10th: “We weren’t bad. We were probably a little better at the beginning and we had really good short run speed and really good long run speed, but that middle portion wasn’t the best. It’s something to be proud of. I wish those guys at the end with tires didn’t get us, but I didn’t think they were going to run all those green flag laps.”

Jimmie Johnson – Finished 11th: “We had a really good race. I got stuck on the inside on a lot of restarts, which kind of affected our progress. But we would drive up to the top three, top five and at the end there something happened with the back of the car, and I lost it going into Turn 1 and hit the wall with like 30 to go. Somehow still finished 11th. The car is destroyed. The tail is moved over like two feet, right front is pushed in, I’m surprised I didn’t get a flat. So, I got really lucky to finish, but a strong effort, very good race car. Just unfortunately, I had a little issue getting into Turn 1. I don’t know if it was brake related or something went wrong with the back of the car, but the back just started wheel hopping really bad that final 30 laps and it was a handful to drive.”

Jamie McMurray – Finished 12th: “We struggled at the beginning did a really good job adjusting our car. (Crew chief Matt McCall) made some really good calls there. I had good track position at the end. We were just kind of at the end of the cars that didn’t put tires on and tires meant a little more than we expected. He (Matt McCall) was just telling me that he thought we got outran by all the guys that put tires on, but overall, we had a really good car.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Finished 14th: “It was a really tough night. We battled back from a blown right-front and then that last stop they said I was a little too fast speeding, so we had to make up a lot of ground. The car was really good and it’s just a bummer. I feel like we didn’t get an opportunity to go race for a win there with the speeding penalty, but the guys gave me a good car, so you’ve got to be happy about that.”

Paul Menard – Finished 16th: “Tonight was a battle for everyone on this Knauf/Menards Chevrolet. We got the free pass a couple of times, Matt Borland and the guys kept adjusting on the car throughout the night. We used pit strategy to get inside the top 10 late in Stage 2. I was able to hold off a lot of those guys with fresher tires to pick up some stage points, which was big for this team. We took the wave around in the final stage and the car really came to life. The car worked well on the bottom on the last run, but it just got too tight at the end.” 

David Ragan – Finished 17th: “That’s a solid day for the Front Row Motorsports team. I feel like we had a little better car for the first half of the race and we made great adjustments, but I don’t know if the VHT wore off or the track cooled off, but we lost a little bit of the handle over the last 150 laps.  We wanted a little better, but it was a great race.  We ran in the top 20 all night and we’re happy with that.”

Chase Elliott – Finished 18th: “Yeah that was just a racing incident with Kevin (Harvick). I tried to… we were just working lap traffic and he and I had been racing really hard back and forth with each other and I kind of go to his inside and he was setting up to pass the guy on exit. He has been running the top and he just didn’t know I was down there. I had a really good Turn 1 and 2. He just didn’t know. I shouldn’t have stuck my nose in there, I guess.”

AJ Allmendinger – Finished 22nd: “That was just a long night.  We didn’t start off very good, but kept fighting, kept staying on the lead lap and got hit by the No. 38 and I went to turn back behind him and Chris (Buescher) had gotten there and he hit me in the left-rear. It’s not his fault. I overreacted about Chris hitting me. So, it wasn’t his fault and then it just had a bad tire rub, so we had to pit and we could never get those two laps back and I think we weren’t fantastic, but we were fighting. At times, we had a pretty good car and then we would try something else and we would lose a little bit, but I thought we could have ran top 15 to top 18 which would have been okay. It’s just a long night.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Finished 23rd: “We struggled. We had a real fast car for like 10-15 laps and then we would just real, real tight, so we struggled all day trying to figure it out. We weren’t good, and we weren’t going to fix it on pit road either. We’ve got a lot of tools on pit road to really get after it, but the problems we had we couldn’t fix with wedge or trackbar.

Danica Patrick – Finished 25th: “It was a long, tough battle here at Bristol, and I wish we could have run better. We just didn’t have it this weekend, but we’ll move on. Thanks to all of the guys for working hard on my One Cure Ford Fusion this weekend.”

Landon Cassill – Finished 35th: “It’s just close quarters. Bristol is a tough race track and I was sliding up and I thought maybe there was a little room, but he just clipped me.  It’s tough racing at Bristol.” 

Ty Dillon – Finished 36th: “It really felt like we had some raw speed in our GEICO Chevrolet. We had a couple pit road penalties and ended up three laps down. We earned one back and felt like we were fast enough to get more laps back. We got into the wall a little earlier on and probably weakened the ball joint a little bit. We hit the wall again and the car is done. It was a really rough night but we did seem to have good speed in our car tonight.”

Aric Almirola – Finished 37th: “We had an oil line on the motor that had a hole in it and it started smoking real bad and caught on fire, so that’s the end of our night. We blew like four or five right-front tires. It was just a long night for our Smithfield team. We’ll have to regroup and go on to the next race.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 39th: “From my perspective, we were running really good and all of a sudden the left rear (tire) went flat. I don’t know what happened, if we had contact on that restart or our trackbar broke. My car chief said the letters on the Goodyear were rubbed off and about two laps later we broke. I was just moving forward. I passed like four cars and then it busted a tire. It never works out when you break when you are running bad, but we were running good and it broke. Bummer, our battery was going dead too, so it probably wasn’t going to be much longer we were going to be out of the race either way, but just a bummer I really love this track and was having a blast tonight. It sucks it had to end this way.”

Martin Truex Jr. still No. 1 in NASCAR Cup points, Kyle Busch up to 2nd after Bristol

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Martin Truex Jr. remains in command of the NASCAR Cup point standings with 951 points.

Saturday night’s race winner, Kyle Busch, climbed into second place in the points (850 points, 101 behind Truex), dislodging Kyle Larson (845 points, 106 behind Truex) from that spot.

Kevin Harvick remains in fourth position (824 points, 127 behind) followed by Denny Hamlin (753 points, 198 behind).

Kurt Busch, who finished fifth in the race, moved up to 13th in the standings in what was his 600th career NASCAR Cup start (see video above). He’s assured of a playoff spot after winning the season-opening Daytona 500.

Click here for the NASCAR Cup standings following Saturday’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.