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NBC Sports crew examines key storylines and drivers to watch for Daytona Speedweeks

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The NASCAR Sprint Cup garage opens Friday at Daytona International Speedway and before cars get on track, NBC Sports’ Jeff Burton, Steve Letarte, Dustin Long and Nate Ryan discussed a few topics.

Friday, they’ll offer a few predictions.

Here is what they had to say:

1. What are the key storylines you will be watching at Daytona during Speedweeks?

STEVE LETARTE: Daytona has always been a standalone event. I look at the rules being the same as last year, so it will be interesting if the same cars have speed in Daytona as last year. I’m sure the charter system will be the buzz in Daytona.

DUSTIN LONG: Three stand out to me.

— Richard Childress Racing has gone winless since Nov. 2013 (73 consecutive races) and last won a points race at a restrictor-plate track in Oct. 2011. Does the streak end this time?

— Defending Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano was brought to Team Penske by Brad Keselowski but Logano has topped Keselowski in wins during the past two seasons (Logano has 11 wins to Keselowski’s seven). How much higher can Logano go?

— Safety always is among the key storylines at Daytona. This year marks the 15th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash and the first time Cup cars have been back on track since Austin Dillon’s terrifying crash after the checkered flag in July.

NATE RYAN: The storylines are the storylines – or, at least which emerge in the absence of Tony Stewart attempting the Great American Race for seemingly the final time. Until last week, I’d expected all the focus would have been on Stewart entering this race. Now it’s shifted, and that could offer a preview of how the series might change next year when he is gone for good.

Also worth watching:

–Hendrick Motorsports was dominant in the plate races last year (Dale Jr. probably could have won the first and last races of the season and won the middle events at Talladega and Daytona); can it maintain the magic?

–Does Joey Logano, who won the Daytona 500 and at Talladega in October, still have the goods?

Kyle Busch has been strong enough to win this race multiple times, and there have been instances when the defending series champion opens with a Daytona 500 win.

–In the first race at the 2.5-mile oval since Austin Dillon’s horrifying crash, and on the 15-year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death, there will be a focus on safety as part of the opening of the Daytona Rising project.

2. Who is the one driver you will pay close attention to during Speedweeks and why?

JEFF BURTON: I’m going to be watching Matt Kenseth and how he handles coming back from last year’s disappointment. It’s always difficult to be in the middle of that type of firestorm and then move on. He is a championship contender but needs to be able to put all of that behind him.

STEVE LETARTE: Chase Elliott. He is very talented and has always been very level-headed. How will he approach his first year in the 24?

DUSTIN LONG: Kurt Busch. He missed last year’s 500 because of a NASCAR suspension. He’s among the most talented drivers yet to win a restrictor-plate points race. Busch is a combined 0-for-59 in points races at Daytona and Talladega. However, he has finished in the top five 30.5 percent of the time and scored a top-10 finish in 50.9 percent of those races. He’s due.

NATE RYAN: Joey Logano. Daytona requires help and good friends, and Brad Keselowski is Logano’s lone teammate (though Ryan Blaney also will help). After the way many veterans piled on after Matt Kenseth’s shots last year, will navigating the draft be any more difficult for Logano?

Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas: Start time, TV channel

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The second round of the Cup playoffs begins with the Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The 1.5-mile track kicks off the Round of 12. Winning the race and stage points are a premium for playoff drivers before the races at Talladega and the Charlotte Roval.

Kevin Harvick, who won at Bristol, starts from the pole.

Here is all the info for the Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given by Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis at 7:07 p.m. The green flag waves at 7:17 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at Noon. Drivers report to their cars at 6:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 7 p.m. by Motor Racing Outreach Chaplain, Billy Mauldin. The national anthem will be performed by Sierra Black at 7:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 267 laps (400.5 miles) around the 1.5-mile track.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 25

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

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6 p.m with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 6:30 p.m. Race coverage begins at 7 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for sunny skies with a high of 96 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Kevin Harvick beat Kyle Busch to win at Bristol and claim his ninth win of the season.

LAST POINTS RACE AT LAS VEGAS: Joey Logano beat Matt DiBenedetto and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in February.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the lineup.

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS’ COVERAGE:

Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win but without hometown fans

Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

Germain Racing sells charter, will exit sport at end of season

Charlotte Roval to host limited number of fans

Friday 5: Team’s departure adds to ‘extremely stressful’ time

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NTSB releases final report on Dale Jr. plane crash

Bubba Wallace to receive Stan Musial award for extraordinary character

Long: 100 days left in 2020, what else can happen?

Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win, but without hometown fans

Kurt Busch
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A win by Kurt Busch in tonight’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) couldn’t come under more bittersweet circumstances for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Should Busch claim the victory on the 1.5-mile track, he’d go from being the last driver on the playoff grid (3,001 points entering the race) to the first driver to advance to the Round of 8.

While it would be his first victory of the year, it would also be his first NASCAR win at his home track in 23 starts across the Cup and Xfinity Series.

More: Stage points critical at Vegas

“The Vegas track has definitely been one of the tough ones for me over the years with results and finishes not where I would have expected them to be,” Busch said this week. “And the teams that I’ve raced for just have never quite found that right magic set-up or combination. And then for me, it’s a track that I just have that trouble with.

“There are a few tracks like Indianapolis and Martinsville; those are a few places where I struggle. And so with Vegas, I always put that little extra hometown pressure on myself and I would love to win there.”

The 42-year-old Las Vegas-native rolls off ninth on the 1.5-mile track. It’s his fourth while driving for Ganassi.

In his 21 Cup starts in Las Vegas, Busch’s best result is third in 2005 when he competed for Roush Fenway Racing. He has just one other top five. That came in last year’s spring race when he drove a throwback paint scheme to his 1999 NASCAR Southwest Series championship.

That day he led 23 laps. It was only the seventh time he’d led laps there and just the third time he’d totaled more than six laps led.

In February, Busch finished 25th.

If Busch were to finally make it to Vegas’ Victory Lane, the celebration would be somewhat muted.

It was announced last weekend that fans would not be allowed to attend the races at Las Vegas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would love to win through the spirit of the camera and everything on NBC Sports; and I know the fans there, local, will be watching and cheering on the Busch brothers,” Busch said. “So, that’s where I would connect. And hopefully do it through the TV side of it. We’ll get fans back one day and we’ll come back and race.”

Busch enters the Round of 12 having earned just one top 10 in the first round, an eighth-place finish at Darlington. He finished 13th at Richmond and 15th at Bristol.

“What I like is we have had better lap times at all three races so far compared to maybe the five or six races leading into the playoffs,” Busch said. “We know that our cushion is gone. We ended Bristol with 33 points to the good. And now we start Vegas minus four (points behind Austin Dillon in the cutoff spot). So that’s just part of the system and now we have to be perfect. We have to get every point possible that we’re able to get on our own at Vegas, Talladega, and the Roval. And, that should help us advance.”

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

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Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan were teammates from 1982-84 at the University of North Carolina and Eastern Conference rivals throughout the 1980s and ’90s in the NBA.

But their friendship was about more than just hoops. While growing up on opposite ends of the Tar Heel State, Daugherty and Jordan both developed a passion for following NASCAR.

Tobacco Road meant fast cars and hard-driving heroes for these two North Carolina natives.

LIFELONG FAN: Michael Jordan explains why he’s partnering with Denny Hamlin

In a NASCAR on NBC feature, Daugherty recalls how NASCAR impacted his life and Jordan’s and led both into team ownership. Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin announced they will form a team to field cars for Bubba Wallace next season.

Daughterty notes in the feature that Wallace “has led a dynamic transformation as NASCAR banned Confederate flags and recommitted to inclusion amidst times of great unrest. This is a huge moment for NASCAR, a cultural momentum shift. This is people of all colors coming together to create an all-American race team already with championship lineage.

“With proper funding, equipment and crewmembers, this will be the best chance ever for a Black driver to win – and while driving for a Black owner. An opportunity to shock the world like Muhammad Ali once did.”

Watch the feature above on Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan or by clicking this link.

Las Vegas Xfinity results, driver points

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Chase Briscoe‘s victory Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway sends him into the next round of the Xfinity playoffs.

Noah Gragson led a 2-3-4 finish for JR Motorsports. Gragson was second and followed by Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg finished fifth.

Briscoe dominated the race, leading 164 of the 200 laps.

Click here for Xfinity race results

POINTS

Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers, and fell out of a transfer spot to the second round. He’s two points behind Harrison Burton for the final transfer spot. Michael Annett is 10 points behind Burton. Riley Herbst is 14 points behind Burton. Brandon Brown is 20 points behind Burton.

Click here for driver points report