Fitness pals Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth in step and on cycle off the track

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CHARLOTTE – Locked in a tight struggle with Matt Kenseth for the 2013 Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie Johnson once ran 20 motivational miles in honor of his rival’s car number.

If the 2016 title again comes down to Johnson and Kenseth, that sort of near-marathon with purpose might get awkward – because Kenseth might be right alongside this time.

The NASCAR stars have become fitness buddies over the past years, taking weekly bike rides on Tuesdays on trails around the Charlotte area.

Wednesday, Johnson and Kenseth rode 130.4 miles in a 7-hour, 21-minute ride from Asheville, North Carolina, to Charlotte as part of a People for Bikes awareness and fund-raising event.

Johnson’s reputation as a workout maven is well established, but Kenseth admittedly avoided much physical activity outside the car. “It’d take me a week to run 20 miles, even if somebody was chasing me,” he once joked when told about Johnson’s feat.

But about a year ago, the 2003 champion began riding with Johnson and joined a group of team members who often go mountain biking on Saturdays near whatever track is being visited by NASCAR.

“I’ve been very impressed with his bike handling skills,” Johnson said of Kenseth. “I’ve taken race car drivers on mountain bike rides, and they’re scared for their lives. They’re going to wreck at any point. Growing up in Wisconsin, (Kenseth) had dirt bikes, he rode snowmobiles. He has a very good sense of where he is on the bike.

“He has some really good natural skills.”

Kenseth’s longest ride before Wednesday was a 60-miler in Florida during Speedweeks, but he was in good shape after more than doubling the distance. Riding in packs of several dozen riders greatly helps reduce the amount of exertion despite traveling at an average speed of 17.6 mph.

“It’s fun to ride with a group,” Kenseth said. “It’s a lot different. There’s drafting, strategy, knowing when to go and not. It’s a little more fun.”

He also went mountain biking last month in Phoenix, helping alleviate the cabin fever in his motorhome when his family doesn’t join him on the road.

“I’ve been doing it for so long that when Katie and the kids aren’t there, you’re just dying to get out of the motorhome,” he said. “Plus, it’s great exercise and keeps you in shape and all that as well. It’s been fun.

I started running a couple of weeks ago. When the kids are in school, I’ll put (youngest daughter) Clara in a stroller, and (wife) Katie and I will go for a run for a few miles. I couldn’t do 20. I could probably run 6 to 7.”

Kenseth, who recently turned 44, has three daughters under the age of 7, and the rededication to fitness has helped increase his energy level.

“I’m trying to spend a couple of days a week in a gym then try to cycle and run a few times a week,” he said. “Just trying to stay in better shape. As you get older, it’s not easier. It’s always harder. So I feel like you’ve got to work harder at it. The more physically fit you are, the more mentally fit you are as well. It all goes hand in hand.”

Matt and Katie Kenseth are entered next month in the Jimmie Johnson Foundation 5K, and the event’s namesake already has been sought out for advice.

“So (Matt’s) asking me, ‘So this running thing, how does it happen?’” Johnson said with a chuckle. “I told him, ‘You put your shoes on and go.’ ”

Natalie Decker not medically cleared for Las Vegas Truck race

Natalie Decker
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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)

Saturday Las Vegas Xfinity race: Start time, TV channel

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The NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs get underway with the Saturday Xfinity race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The race is the first of seven to determine the champion.

Chase Briscoe is on the pole after his win last weekend at Bristol

Here is all the info for the Saturday Las Vegas Xfinity race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 7:38 p.m by Cup driver Bubba Wallace. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 7:47 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 1 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 7:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 7:30 p.m. by Motor Racing Outreach Chaplain, Billy Mauldin. The national anthem will be performed by Mackenzie Mackey at 7:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 200 laps (300 miles) around the 1.5-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 45. Stage 2 ends on Lap 90.

TV/RADIO: Coverage begins on NBCSN with Countdown to Green at 7 p.m. Race broadcast begins at 7:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 7 p.m.. and also can be heard at SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App. Click here for the link.

FORECAST: The forecast calls for clear skies with a high of 95 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Chase Briscoe beat Ross Chastain and Austin Cindric at Bristol.

LAST RACE AT LAS VEGAS: Chase Briscoe beat Austin Cindric and Ryan Sieg for the win.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for Xfinity starting lineup

General Motors announces leadership for technical center

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General Motors has announced the leadership for its new performance and racing technical center in Concord, North Carolina.

GM has tapped Dr. Eric Warren of Richard Childress Racing to be the director of NASCAR operations at the facility, which was unveiled in January.

Warren will be responsible for competition duties for NASCAR programs, “as well as expanding the involvement of GM’s product development resources in the technical strategy for the Chevrolet race teams,” GM said in a statement.

GM’s 75,000-square-foot facility will feature Driver-in-the-Loop simulators, vehicle simulation, aero development and other practices designed to advance racing and production capabilities.

Warren had been RCR’s Chief Technology Officer since 2017 and part of the team since 2012.

GM also named Mark Stielow to its new Director of Motorsports Competition Engineering position. Stielow will be responsible for overall engineering and technical direction for the NHRA, IndyCar, IMSA and Motorsports Operations. He will have a direct link to GM’s vehicle integration organization.