Before the helmet goes on: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. provides glimpse into Daytona 500 prep

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is not one to listen to music to pump himself up before a race.

One, there’s little time between appearances, driver introductions, greeting sponsors and taking photos before the race

Two, unlike other sports where emotion can play a key role in an athlete’s performance, Stenhouse knows he needs to be calm in the car.

“You’ve got to be focused,’’ Stenhouse said. “I like talking to my crew chief right before to talk about our strategy before the race.’’

Last weekend, Stenhouse shared his thoughts, recording for NBC Sports what he was doing and thinking about in the hours leading up to the Daytona 500, a race in which he finished 22nd.

Stenhouse recorded how he was preparing for the season’s biggest race. Here is what he said:

Saturday, Feb. 20

“Just got done watching the Xfinity race … trying to learn as much as I could. The first race that we’ve seen during the day with the hot temperatures. I think I learned a little bit, definitely want to sleep on it and see if we can’t do something tomorrow with that.

“Right now headed to my Fastenal dinner. Generally, I have a sponsor dinner once a weekend at least, sometimes not at all. But the biggest race of the year, a lot of sponsors are in town, so I’ve got a dinner to do tonight with Fastenal, and then we’ll see what happens after the dinner.”

Saturday night  

“It’s about 9:15, just wrapped up dinner with my Fastenal guests and enjoyed some good fish at the Chart House. Headed back to the track and getting ready to call my crew chief Nick Sandler to talk about the strategy for tomorrow and anything else they have in mind of what they saw today during the last practice that we did not run.

“So, go over that with him and probably get back to the bus, and I’ll be watching Supercross, watching, hopefully, Ryan Dungey winning the Supercross race. After that, just get a good night’s sleep. I’m going to try to drink a lot of water tonight. It’s going to be hot tomorrow. So I’ll get a good night’s sleep and get up in the morning ready to go.’’

Saturday night

“I forgot to add while I’m watching Supercross, I’m going to watch some of the USAC races from Ocala (Fla.), some dirt late model from Volusia.

“I like to do that nights before races, it just helps me relax and enjoy racing and what I grew up doing. It kind of takes me back, especially before the Daytona 500, our biggest race of the year.

“You’ve always got to remember where you came from and what got you to this big stage. Came back from dinner and seeing everybody up and partying. To think that they’re here for you and to watch this race that you’re going to be putting on, that’s pretty special.

“It’s our biggest race of the year that we really want to win, really want to have a good showing, get our season kicked off on the right foot. It’s all very humbling, but it’s also a very important race for us.’

Sunday, Feb. 21 (race morning)

“Just got done getting ready. Danica always makes us a good breakfast race day morning. Had bacon, eggs and waffles.

“Getting ready to start my day. Like to get up at least an hour before I have to do my first appearance so that I can hang out, hang out with the dogs and Danica and just kind of a relaxing morning. Getting ready to start my day and head off to appearances and on to the next one and the next one and the next one.

After the drivers meeting

“Just finished up a very long drivers meeting (it lasted 30 minutes), introducing every celebrity, baseball player, politician, president and CEO of every company, which is cool, recognize the people that come to support us and the ones that help support the teams.

“Long drivers meeting, always kind of the same Daytona 500 meeting as far as length of time. Now it’s back in the bus to eat lunch and just relax. Maybe 15, 20 minutes before (driver) intros.

“Got a long race ahead. Been drinking a lot of water, staying hydrating. Nothing else much going on. Just going to relax. Make sure I get relaxed and focused for today’s festivities.

“Big race, mentally draining as far as running three-wide all day. When that happens it tends to run you down a little bit. I’ve got one last call to talk to my spotter, Mike Herman Jr., get a better game plan of what he’s thinking after talking to my crew chief. That’s been our day. Long day. Long morning, but getting ready to get this race underway.

On a golf cart on the way to driver introductions

“Beautiful day out. We’re heading to driver intros. Start 19th, today. We’ll see what happens. The first part of the race just kind of always feel it out.

“My spotter Mike Herman and I just race hard at the beginning. If we get shuffled to the back, we’ll kind of ride it out and race every now and then. Just see how it goes. Hopefully, we can do another video in victory lane.’’

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.

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