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Xfinity Rookie Report: How William Byron, Daniel Hemric and others are faring after six races

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The Xfinity Series is six races and two off weeks into its season.

That gives us a small sample size to look at how this years’ rookie class is stacking up against each other.

Five drivers on five different teams are competing for Rookie of the Year honors, and so far the best of bunch – and the series – is JR Motorsports’ William Byron.

The 19-year-old driver is first in the point standings after six races. He’s the only rookie to earn a pole and a stage win. Byron’s Stage 2 win last week at Texas Motor Speedway made him just the second Xfinity regular to win a stage this season. Elliott Sadler is the only other one.

Byron and Cole Custer are the only rookies to earn top-five finishes so far with one each.

Three rookies, Byron, Matt Tifft and Daniel Hemric, are in the top 10 in points.

Here’s a break down of each rookies’ season so far.

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

William Byron, No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet

Points Position: First

Top fives: two
Top 10s: five
Laps Led 19
Avg. Finish: 7.7
Best finish: fourth (Phoenix)
Poles: One (Phoenix)
DNF: None

MORE: Xfinity Spotlight Q&A with Byron

 (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Matt Tifft; No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Points: Sixth

Top fives: None
Top 10s: One (Texas)
Lap led: four
Avg. finish: 15.8
Best finish: Ninth (Texas)
DNF: One

(Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Daniel Hemric; No. 21 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet

Points: Seventh

Top Fives: None
Top 10s: Two
Laps Led: None
Avg. finish: 17.2
Best finish: Seventh (Phoenix)
DNF: One

MORE: Xfinity Series Spotlight Q&A with Hemric

 

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Cole Custer; No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford

Points: 12th

Top Fives: One (Texas)
Top 10s: Two
Laps Led: None
Avg. Finish: 19.8
Best Finish: Fifth (Texas)
DNF: Two

(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Spencer Gallagher; No. 23 GMS Racing Chevrolet

Points: 17th

Top Fives: None
Top 10s: None
Laps Led: None
Avg. Finish: 23rd
Best Finish: 14th (Texas)
DNF: One

MORE: Xfinity Series Spotlight Q&A with Gallagher

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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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Today’s Cup race at Kansas: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

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It’s once again elimination time in the NASCAR Cup Series.

The playoff field will be cut from 12 to eight drivers following today’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. will be looking to earn his sixth win on a 1.5-mile track this year. He won the last visit to Kansas Speedway in May.

Here’s all the important info you need ahead of the race, which will air on NBCSN.

(All times are Eastern)

START: Jay Hernandez will give the command to start engines at 3:07 p.m. Green flag is scheduled for 3:16 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 267 laps (400 miles) around the 1.5-mile oval.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 80. Stage 2 ends at Lap 160.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 30

PRERACE SCHEDULE: Garage opens at 9:30 a.m. Driver-crew chief meeting is at 1 p.m. Driver introductions are at 2:20 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Angie Rosner will perform the anthem at 3:01 p.m..

TV/RADIO:  NBCSN will broadcast the race at 3 p.m. Coverage begins at 1 p.m. on NBCSN with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 2:30 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race on radio and at mrn.com, starting with its pre-race show at 2 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts a temperature of 67 degrees and no chance of rain at race time.

LAST TIME: Martin Truex Jr. led the final 19 laps to win in May. He beat Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. Harvick is the defending winner of this race. He beat Carl Edwards and Joey Logano last October.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for starting lineup