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Bump & Run: Forecasting what to watch for in 2018

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1. Of the changes taking place this season, what is the one you’re most interested in seeing how it goes?

Steve Letarte: I guess it’s a combination of inspection, rules and a new body for Chevrolet. There was so much talk last year about aerodynamics and perhaps Toyota had a little more efficient car than the other two manufacturers, according to the other two manufacturers or the teams that raced for them. Is the combination of the new inspection station, perhaps some rule tweaks … and the new Chevrolet body style, will that combination change the racing we see at the mile-and-a-half and 2-mile tracks?

Kyle Petty: I honestly don’t have an opinion on the changes. It always seems to me it’s not so much the change we talk about as we move through the season as it is the ripple effects of those changes. I’ll wait to see how large the waves are.

Nate Ryan: Schedule. It’s been the least discussed but could have the greatest impact — particularly on the Round of 16’s complexion, which could feature major cutoff drama in the debut of the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course.

Dustin Long: I’m most intrigued in how Hendrick Motorsports performs this season with all the changes that organization has made on and off the track. Even though the organization won four races last year, even car owner Rick Hendrick noted the lack of competitiveness and ability to lead laps much of the year. Will the management changes, the driver changes (William Byron and Alex Bowman) and the cultural changes (closer working relationship among the four teams) lead to greater success or more frustration? How these changes perform will have an impact on the playoff picture.

2. Of the drivers with a new Cup ride this year, who are you most intrigued about?

Steve Letarte: I think that is going to drive some excitement into the sport to have all those changes. The name that I have highlighted that I’m going to watch is Erik Jones. Aric Almirola (to Stewart-Haas Racing) has been around a while, we kind of understand where he is. Ryan Blaney did win a race, I think his transition (to Penske) will be smooth. William Byron I think kind of gets a freebie. He’s run so well at everything. It’s his rookie year, he’s so young. Come, learn. I would add Alex Bowman as well. Erik Jones and Alex Bowman. I think those two have to prove they deserve to be in the cars they are. Erik Jones is remarkably talented, and I have no doubt that he has the ability. But the ability is not the same as going to Victory Lane. At some point you need trophies. Now that he’s driving that 20 car, a car that won with Matt Kenseth, a company that knows how to win, I really look for Erik Jones to show up this year. He’s probably the one I’m most intrigued about and I’m going to watch the closest.

Kyle Petty: Blaney and Byron. Blaney because of his talent in the car. We saw a glimpse of that last year but as much because of his personality. He has something and has tapped into something that NASCAR and the sport has been missing! A driver who has fun, has personality … and can WIN! Novel idea! Byron because of his ability at such a young age to face pressure and stare it down! He appears wise beyond his years as a person and as a driver. His personality will develop. I’m not sure in what direction it will go, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Nate Ryan: Darrell Wallace Jr. With even a modicum of success, he could trigger positive shock waves of good cheer throughout the team and NASCAR. But if he falters, it will raise questions about the long-term viability of RPM and “The King’s” tolerance for hanging around NASCAR as an also-ran.

Dustin Long: I want to see what Kasey Kahne can do with Leavine Family Racing and a single-car operation. Can he help raise the organization’s performance level or will he be stuck in the middle of the pack? With a one-year contract, there’s a lot at stake for Kahne.

3. Which one of the drivers who raced for a championship in Miami last year (Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski) has the best chance of returning?

Steve Letarte: Kevin Harvick seems to always be there. So that means the odds are something is going to happen that maybe he won’t. Brad Keselowski, I put him in the same bucket as Harvick. I have some concern where the Fords are. Toyota had good speed last year. Chevrolet has made a body change. I’m really waiting to see at the beginning of the year what the Fords have to counteract that. As much as Martin Truex Jr. was so dominant last  year, I have to say Kyle Busch. I think Kyle Busch has the ability to dominate at different types of race tracks, so I think he has the best chance to go back to Miami.

Kyle Petty: Kevin Harvick … because he’s Kevin Harvick. Enough said

Nate Ryan: Martin Truex Jr. because of his No. 78 team’s continuity. The contraction of the No. 77 could make Furniture Row Racing even better considering how far it went as a single-car team in 2015 and ’16.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch. He’s done it three years in a row. It’s easy to see him making it four in a row.

4. Who wins first — Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Darrell Wallace Jr., Ty Dillon or someone else?

Steve Letarte: It should be Chase Elliott or Erik Jones but something in my gut tells me that it never works that way. I think William Byron breaks through super early in his career. I do think of this list, Chase Elliott wins, Erik Jones wins, William Byron wins. Those three I’m confident to say will win a race this year. Hopefully, for Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez they can join the list, but I’m going to have to see something at the beginning half of the year to be able to move them on to the winning list.

Kyle Petty: Erik or Daniel. I don’t see JGR or Toyota getting weaker and I see Erik and Daniel getting stronger and better. The experience of last year should pay dividends this year.

Nate Ryan: Chase Elliott, maybe as soon as the Daytona 500. He’s long overdue for a breakthrough, and after the first victory with the number his father made famous, many more soon will follow.

Dustin Long: Chase Elliott. He’s been too close too long. His time is coming.

* NASCAR America returns to NBCSN on Feb. 26 after the Winter Olympics  

NASCAR America Scan All: Kyle Busch wants to know if he got a one- or two-fingered salute

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“P17; you’re making really good time,” Kyle Busch’s spotter Adam Stevens told Busch as he blasted through the field on his way to winning a third consecutive race in the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway.

“Was that a two-fingered or a one-fingered salute,” Busch replied about his experience in traffic.

“The 42 dove-bombed us a little bit, but the 41’s the one that got us,” Jamie McMurray was told by his spotter.

But McMurray was still upset about an earlier incident when the two were racing for the free pass.

“Jamie’s trying to tear up our car now,” Kyle Larson said after getting run into by his teammate. “I got damage on my left side from him.”

Here are some of the other scanner highlights:

• “We got a penalty,” Rodney Childers told Kevin Harvick. “The wedge wrench went over the wall.”
• “Good, we’re coming from the back,” Harvick replied. “That’s what, three or four weeks in a row? I’m used to it.”
• “That 31’s fighting the hell out of the 78,” Childers reported.
• “I’m sorry about all that,” Larson said after missing pit road twice. “I braked later than I did there. Those two times, I just wheel hopped.”
• “That’s pathetic,” Aric Almirola said. “I don’t know how we can be that good for 200 laps and that bad after that.”

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Matt DiBenedetto will pay tribute to Jeff Burton in Southern 500

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For several years, the Southern 500 has given drivers an opportunity to pay tribute to the legends of NASCAR and this year, Matt DiBenedetto will pay homage to Jeff Burton’s No. 99 from the 2000 Cup season.

“You have no clue how excited I am about this one,” Matt DiBenedetto said. “I’ve been wanting to do this one for a while.

“This actually has a back story on it. And this is what got me into NASCAR and into racing. And the first car that I liked – I bought the diecast cars for – this is like really close to my heart.”

“It’s really exciting for me,” Jeff Burton said in a taped interview. “That 2000 paint scheme was really popular with Jeff Burton fans and Exide Racing fans back in the day. A lot of good things happened that year. We won several races that year.”

Burton won four races that year and finished second on five other occasions.

Burton didn’t win the Southern 500 that year, but he came close – finishing second to teammate Mark Martin.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: A Matt Kenseth return to Roush Fenway Racing would mean …

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Roush Fenway Racing will make what it is calling a major partner announcement at 10 a.m. Wednesday, and a report states that it will include details on Matt Kenseth returning to drive for the team.

NASCAR on NBC’s Nate Ryan reported Tuesday that Roush Fenway Racing declined comment on SB Nation’s report that Kenseth would run select races for Trevor Bayne beginning May 12 at Kansas Speedway. Ryan reported that multiple principles, including a former Roush Fenway Racing driver will be at Wednesday’s announcement.

Kenseth, who turned 46 in March, won Cup Rookie of the Year honors with Roush Fenway Racing in 2000 and remained there through the 2012 season.

Kenseth left for Joe Gibbs Racing and raced there from 2013-17. He was replaced after last season in the No. 20 car by Erik Jones, leaving Kenseth without a full-time ride for this season.

NASCAR on NBC’s Kyle Petty said on NASCAR America that should the report of Kenseth’s return to Roush Fenway Racing be true, it would provide a nice homecoming.

“He knows the players,’’ Petty said of Kenseth. “He knows everything about the place. He grew up there. He came of age there. He won (a) championship. He won races there. So from all those pieces, it makes sense for a guy like Matt Kenseth to go back there just as it would if Jeff Gordon said I want to go back to Hendrick. It makes perfect sense. But only Matt can answer that question (of why).’’

Ryan noted it is not unusual for teams to put another driver in a car to benchmark that car’s performance.

Bayne is 26th in the points. The 2011 Daytona 500 winner has not finished better than 12th (Texas) this season. Every driver ahead of him in the points has at least one top-10 finish this season.

“Even in a part-time basis, what could he bring?’’ Petty said of Kenseth. “He brings so much. It’s an intangible. I think we saw it when he went to Joe Gibbs Racing. What did he bring there? That team just, all of a sudden, just took off. Was it all Matt Kenseth? No, but it’s part Matt Kenseth, it’s part that knowledge, it’s part that experience, it’s part that desire to run up front, win races and build something and I think Matt felt he had built something that first go around.’’

Kenseth scored the 39th Cup win of his career in November at Phoenix. A week before that win, Kenseth talked to Ryan on the NASCAR on NBC podcast about realizing the end of his career seemed near.

“But like I said, I feel like the way things have gone that for whatever reason — reasons I don’t understand that I think will become really, really clear in the future — that it’s just not meant for me to race next year,” Kenseth said. “I think it’s that simple. Everything lined up this way because I wasn’t going to make the decision myself, so someone made it for me. It’s just not supposed to happen.”

Car owner Joe Gibbs said Tuesday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he would look forward to a return by Kenseth to Cup.

“I’ve got to tell you I would love it,’’ Gibbs said. “What a great guy, a great person, a great representative for the sport and for sponsors and extremely competitive. I would love that, and I hope that is going to be the case. I hope he can be there on a steady basis.

“It would be a thrill for us to have Matt back. I think he’s a real credit to the NASCAR Series and love the family. I think that would be great for us. I hope that’s going to be the case. I hope he gets to run a bunch of races.’’

For more, watch the video above.

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Deontay Wilder named Geico 500 honorary pace car driver

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Talladega SuperSpeedway has a reputation for delivering blows to the competition, so it is only fitting that the honorary pace car driver for the Geico 500 will be a man known to deliver knockouts to his opponents. Reigning World Boxing Council (WBC) World Heavyweight Champion and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, native Deontay Wilder will pace the field before the initial green flag Sunday.

Wilder, 32, has a record of 40-0 with 39 of his wins by knockout.

Known as the “Bronze Bomber” because of the 2008 Bronze medal he won in the Beijing Olympics, Wilder found boxing as a way to provide for a daughter diagnosed with spina bifida. He immediately found that he was a natural by scoring a technical knockout over Ethan Cox in November, 2008.

Wilder has held the title since January 2015 after defeating Bermane Stiverne in his only bout that was not decided by a knockout. Wilder scored a unanimous decision and has defended his belt seven times since.