Dustin Long & Nate Ryan note highlights of 2015, look ahead to 2016

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Even with weekends void of any NASCAR racing until next year, there’s still much to discuss and debate.

NBC Sports’ Dustin Long and Nate Ryan look back on 2015 and look ahead to what 2016 might be like, providing much for you to debate.

Here’s what they have to say on various topics:

DRIVER OF THE YEAR

DUSTIN – Kevin Harvick. Although Kyle Busch is the champion – and a worthy champion – I look at this as similar to an MVP award and it doesn’t have to go to the champion. Yes, Harvick won fewer races than Busch (Busch had five and Harvick three), but Harvick finished first or second 16 times. Think about that. He finished first or second 44.4 percent of the time this past season. To put it into perspective, Harvick had more finishes of first or second than four Chase drivers had top-10 finishes this year.

NATE – Kyle Busch. Even without the championship, he probably would have been the pick over Joey Logano. No one overcame more this season than Busch, who admirably kept his suffering under wraps.

FAVORITE MOMENT OF THE SEASON

DUSTIN – I’ve never seen a victory lane quite like the one with Jeff Gordon at Martinsville during the Chase. One of the best things about it was that the celebration is done on stage on the frontstretch. The number of fans who stayed to share in Gordon’s celebration was astounding. Many chanted his name or Homestead and Gordon responded to them. An hour later, after all the interviews and photographs were done, Gordon ran to the crowd and gave high fives to many who stayed. A remarkable moment.

NATEJeff Gordon’s win at Martinsville Speedway. It’s a shame to have been somewhat overshadowed by the Matt Kenseth-Joey Logano wreck (though that also set the stage for the No. 24 victory). Gordon’s ebullience was guileless and unparalleled – and watching the most consummate professional in NASCAR history recapture his boyhood glee was breathtaking.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

DUSTIN – Tony Stewart. The belief was a new year would bring a new Stewart after his injury two years ago and the tragic incident in a sprint car last year. In hindsight, maybe that was unfair to think the changing of the calendar would simply change Stewart’s fortunes. He was a non-factor much of the season, struggling with the reduced horsepower. It became news when he was in the top 10, hardly fitting for a three-time champion.

NATE – Matt Kenseth’s decision to wreck Logano from the lead while 10 laps down … and then feebly attempting to propagate the charade that the crash was because of a tire failure. Paybacks are part of racing, but this was conduct unbecoming of a champion.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

DUSTIN – That it has taken more than a decade from when SAFER barriers first started going up on walls that outer walls at tracks are completely covered by the energy-reducing barriers.

NATE – Tony Stewart’s regression into irrelevance. “Smoke” seemed to have the swagger back in the preseason after two wayward years, and he usually drives as well as he feels. It might have been the most remarkably mediocre season in NASCAR history.

ONE CHANGE YOU HOPE TO SEE NEXT YEAR

DUSTIN – Victory Lane on the frontstretch at all tracks so fans can share in the moment as they did with Jeff Gordon at Martinsville.

NATE – A de-emphasis on aerodynamics via the reduction of downforce, producing more show-stopping races in the vein of Kentucky Speedway.

YOUR WAY TOO EARLY FINAL FOUR FOR 2016

DUSTIN – Kevin Harvick will be there for the third consecutive year. Reigning champ Kyle Busch will make it again. Joey Logano will join them. Each year there has been a surprise driver. In 2014, it was Ryan Newman, who made it despite being winless. This past year it was Martin Truex Jr. with Furniture Row Racing. Next year’s surprise driver will be Jamie McMurray from Chip Ganassi Racing.

NATE – Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano

ONE DRIVER YOU WILL CLOSELY WATCH IN 2016

DUSTIN – Kyle Larson. For all the talent and all that is expected, he has yet to win a Sprint Cup race. He’ll enter 2016 with a new crew chief, getting Chad Johnston, who had been Tony Stewart’s crew chief the past two seasons. Will it all come together next year and Larson gets to victory lane?

NATE – Tony Stewart. Can his long goodbye be graceful if the results remain so painfully subpar, awkwardly undermining the tributes to his greatness?

Results, point standings after Truck race at Las Vegas

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Austin Hill won Friday night’s Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his second win of 2020.

He beat Sheldon Creed for the victory.

The top five was completed by Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith.

IndyCar driver Conor Daly finished 18th and Travis Pastrana was 21st.

Click here for the race results.

Check back for the point standings.

Austin Hill wins Las Vegas Truck race

Austin Hill
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Austin Hill won Friday night’s Truck Series playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, leading the final 39 laps to score the victory.

Hill took the lead on a restart and held off charges from Sheldon Creed over the final 20 laps.

Creed’s progress was slowed with 11 laps to go when he got loose and scraped the wall in Turn 1. He was never able to get close enough to Hill to make a challenge.

Creed dominated the early portion of the race, leading 89 laps before he struggled to get going on the final restart and briefly fell to seventh.

The win is the second of the year for Hill. He’s the first playoff driver to win in the postseason and it come after he finished 25th at Bristol.

“We didn’t have the best truck tonight by no means,” Hill told FS1. “Pit crew did a hell of job on that last pit stop getting me into the position I needed to. I just had to go out there and get it. … Sheldon was definitely way faster than me. … I was probably looking in my mirror more than I was our front. I knew he was better than we were.”

The top five was completed by Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith.

More: Race results and point standings

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith all matched their best results of the season … While he was the first driver to finish one lap down, IndyCar driver Conor Daly placed 18th in his first career Truck Series start … Travis Pastrana placed 21st in his second start of the season.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Rachael Lessard finished 20th after he had to pit early in the race following contact with the wall … Ben Rhodes finished 23rd after he spun from contact with Stewart Friesen and hit the inside wall on Lap 84 … Jordan Anderson’s engine expired on the ensuing restart. He finished 32nd.

NOTABLE: Natalie Decker, who was not medically cleared to compete Friday night, was treated and released from the infield care center.

WHAT’S NEXT: Race at Talladega Superspeedway, 1 p.m. ET Oct. 3 on FS1

 

Natalie Decker not medically cleared for Las Vegas Truck race

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NASCAR announced right before Friday night’s Truck Series race that Natalie Decker hadn’t been medically cleared to compete.

No details were provided about the issue that prevented Decker from being cleared. During the final stage of the race, NASCAR announced she had been treated and released from the infield medical center.

The Niece Motorsports driver would have started 23rd. Due to her No. 44 truck having cleared inspection and having been placed on the starting grid she was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker has made 11 starts this year. She missed the June 28 race at Pocono after she was hospitalized due to bile duct complications related to her gallbladder removal in December.

Check back for more.

Brandon Brown hopes to shed underdog role in Xfinity playoffs

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Brandon Brown knows the odds are against him advancing beyond the first round of the Xfinity playoffs.

“If I went out and we did a survey and we asked 1,000 NASCAR fans to create a playoff bracket, I guarantee that 90 to 99 percent of them have me getting eliminated in the first round,” he told NBC Sports.

But that’s not stopping him.

Brown is in the Xfinity playoffs for the first time, earning the final spot last weekend with his family-run team. He enters Saturday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) last in the 12-driver field. Brown has 2,000 points and is 10 points behind Ross Chastain, who holds the final transfer spot, entering the first round.

MORE: Saturday’s Xfinity race start time, lineup, forecast

Regardless where he is in the standings, Brown still met the team’s preseason goal of making the playoffs.

“It’s hard to put it into words,” the 27-year-old said of making the playoffs. “It’s so exciting and so thrilling. We’re just happy. Life is good. We’re seeing the fruits of our labor.”

Much of the Xfinity playoff focus will be on Chase Briscoe, who enters with a series-high seven wins. Or Austin Cindric, who won the regular-season title. Or Justin Allgaier, who has won three of the last seven races and could be the favorite if he makes it to the championship race at Phoenix Raceway.

Brown, who is in his second full season in the series, has four consecutive top-20 finishes going into this weekend. He knows the challenge he faces.

He said a key for this weekend is to have no mistakes, be running at the end and try to take advantage of any mistakes other playoff drivers have.

Then, he’ll look to Talladega. He’ll have an upgraded Earnhardt Childress Racing engine for that race, the team spending the extra money for the engine upgrade.

“I go into that track with confidence,” he said. “I need to go out there and make it happen, go win and make an name and go ahead and punch my ticket.”

While Brown knows most look at him as the underdog of these playoffs, he hopes to drop that title someday.

“The goal will be to get rid of that underdog title and to build that program that is going to be looked on as a powerhouse of the NASCAR Xfinity Series,” he said. “I enjoy the ride (as underdog), but now I’m ready to advance past it.”

Points entering Xfinity playoffs 

2,050 – Chase Briscoe

2,050 – Austin Cindric

2,033 – Justin Allgaier

2,025 – Noah Gragson

2,020 – Brandon Jones

2,018 – Justin Haley

2,014 – Harrison Burton

2,010 – Ross Chastain

2,002 – Ryan Sieg

2,002 – Michael Annett

2,001 – Riley Herbst

2,000 – Brandon Brown

First Round races

Sept. 26 – Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Oct. 3 – Talladega Superspeedway (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Oct. 10 – Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC)