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Learning on the go: Rookie Daniel Suarez hopes homework pays off in Clash

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Rookie Daniel Suarez’s goal for tonight’s Advance Auto Parts Clash is simple.

“I need to be smart, first of all, and then make moves,’’ he told NBC Sports in his motor coach Saturday morning at Daytona International Speedway. “I’m not planning to just ride there in the back and be safe. I need to make moves to learn for next weekend. Sometimes you make mistakes when that happens, but that’s how you learn.’’

Since the Jan. 11 announcement that he was taking over the No. 19 ride at Joe Gibbs Racing for Carl Edwards, Suarez has been learning. He’s never raced in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The cars are new. Many of the drivers are new. So are the race lengths.

Suarez’s homework has included hours of film work, meetings, data reports and personal training. Add media duties and the reigning Xfinity champion has had little free time.

This just only the beginning.

MORE: Start time, lineup and more for the Clash

That’s plenty to learn. He’ll get quite an experience in tonight’s 17-car Clash.

“I think his biggest challenge is going to be these cars are aerodynamically way different than the Xfinity car,’’ teammate Denny Hamlin said. “The Xfinity cars, what you need to do to go fast in them is push each other. These cars, it’s not pushing. It’s getting close but not pushing.

“There’s a lot of different side-to-side characteristics of these cars that are way different. The only way he’s going to get better at that is go out and practice and get as many laps as he can.

“We’ve seen in years past rookies have trouble in (the Daytona 500) — a lot of it because they haven’t been put into those situations three-wide middle and middle of the day when the car is not handling well —and they end up wrecking. It could happen to Daniel, but it has happened to a lot of great ones before him.’’

While there’s only so much Suarez can study — he’ll have to experience much on his own — he’s still done what he can to be ready.

It helps that he went for JGR to the organizational test Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at Phoenix, learning about the nuances of the car from the digital dash to how it handles. Edwards was there to lend a hand. Suarez also looked at the data of fellow rookie Erik Jones, who is with Furniture Row Racing, a fellow Toyota team.

“We were able to share some good information and move forward and just to learn a little bit about where he was faster and where I was faster and why,’’ Suarez said. “You have so many tools to help you to learn faster.’’

He studied film, examined in-car video and other segments of races, to see how the track changes during a race, what drivers do to pass or move around. Suarez has spent about six hours studying film for Daytona. He also had mountains of data reports to go through. 

“I have more information, I have more data and I have more teammates,’’ Suarez said. “There’s a lot going on. The base of doing things is the same, doing your stuff, go back to the team and share your information.’’

Teammates laud Suarez for the amount of homework he’s done to get to this point. Kyle Busch has joked about how often Suarez has reached out to him to seek advice.

“He knows that he needs to learn an awful lot, and he’s got a good head on his shoulders,’’ Busch told NBC Sports of Suarez. “He comes and asks a ton of questions. He’s always on the phone or coming up and seeing me in person asking me advice, asking me this or that or whatever might be coming up next for him and trying to learn and trying to get better.

“He’s not one of these young kids that comes in and thinks he knows everything and doesn’t need any help and then all of a sudden you don’t see them in two or three years.’’

One thing Suarez hasn’t changed is his workouts even with running longer races. Cup races are often at least 200 miles longer than an Xfinity race. Suarez is confident he’s ready for 500-mile races, including next weekend’s Daytona 500.

“I feel like I’m in good shape to do this,’’ Suarez said. “As soon as I hit the race track for a full race is when I’m going to see exactly where I’m at.’’

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NASCAR America: Chase Elliott ‘biggest surprise’ of Cup playoffs

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Only two drivers are safely in the third round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs. Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski secured spots through their wins at Charlotte and Talladega.

That leaves six spots to be decided Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

NASCAR America analysts Parker Kligerman and Kyle Petty broke down the drivers competing for spots. Both of them agreed that Chase Elliott, who has finished in second in three of the five playoff races, has a great chance to make it all the way to the championship race in Miami.

“If Talladega had played out, he was either going to be in victory lane or in the top two or three,” Petty said. “When you look at that, he has had the most solid playoffs of any driver out there. We keep talking about the big three: Larson, Busch and Truex. This guy is a sleeper. But he’s my No. 4.”

Said Kligerman: “He’s been the biggest surprise. That 24 team has been incredible through the playoffs. One thing I’ve noticed about that team, just speaking to (crew chief) Alan Gustafson, speaking to Chase, it’s almost as if they want that first win more than they care about the playoffs.”

Watch the above video for more on the playoff drivers.

Friday’s NASCAR Cup, Xfinity schedule at Kansas Speedway

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Things get started today for the pivotal weekend at Kansas Speedway.

The NASCAR Cup Series will have its elimination race in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400, where four of the 12 remaining playoff drivers will not advance to the Round of 8.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series begins its Round of 8 with Saturday’s Kansas 300.

But it all begins today, as Cup has its first practice (the other two are Saturday) and qualifying, while the Xfinity Series will have its two practice sessions.

Here’s how today’s schedule shapes up:

(All times are Eastern)

10:30 a.m. – 8 p.m. — Cup garage open

12 – 8:30 p.m. — Xfinity garage open

1 – 2:25 p.m. — First Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

2:30 – 3:25 p.m. First Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)

5 – 5:55 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

6:15 p.m. – Cup qualifying (multi-vehicle, 3 rounds) (NBCSN, MRN)

NASCAR: Will Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch advance in playoffs?

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The last two drivers to win NASCAR Cup titles are in precarious positions ahead of the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Kyle Busch, the 2015 champion, is outside the top eight in ninth. He sits seven points behind defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

NASCAR America analysts Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman debated who they think had the best chance to advance to the Third round after Sunday.

Petty put his money behind Busch, who has finished in the top five in each of his last five starts at the 1.5-mile track.

“He’s one of the big three: Truex, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson,” Petty said. “I don’t see where these (last) two races (Charlotte, Talladega) have changed anything. The one thing Kyle Busch brings into Kansas City … he brings speed. These guys have had speed all year-long.”

Johnson on the other hand has produced only four top fives all season and just one since he won at Dover in June.

But Kligerman explained why he thinks the seven-time champion will prevail on Sunday.

“Jimmie Johnson knows how to pass and that is what has become evident throughout this season,” Kligerman said. “No, they have not had the fastest cars at Hendrick Motorsports. No, they have not qualified well. They’ve actually been sort of abysmal at qualifying of late.

“… He has three wins this year. Two of those he started at the back.”

Watch the video for more.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Daniel Hemric, Daniel Suarez’ racing roots

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America begins at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to preview the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman from Stamford, Connecticut.

On the show:

  • We’ll debate which past Cup Series champion will advance to the Round of 8. Defending champion Jimmie Johnson currently leads 2015 champ Kyle Busch by only seven points for the final transfer spot. Who has the edge going into Kansas this Sunday? This elimination race will be a heated competition just to finish above the cut line. Log on to NBCSports.com/NASCARVote and weigh in!
  • Xfinity Series playoff driver Daniel Hemric calls into the show to talk about his chances of advancing to the championship four in Miami. He’ll also describe his experience being one of the four drivers to participate in the recent tire test at the Charlotte Motor Speedway “Roval.”
  • We take a look at the Daniel Suarez’s Racing Roots and discuss his transition from Xfinity Series champion to Monster Energy Cup Series rookie.
  • Parker Kligerman hops into the iRacing simulator to preview Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas, as well as the Formula 1 race in Austin, Texas.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream 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 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.