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Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks about how he became among the best at plate racing

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NASCAR is back in Earnhardt country this weekend with the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won two of the last five restrictor-plate races and is the active leader in wins at Talladega with six. He spoke at length Friday about how he became to be the man to beat when NASCAR rolls into Talladega, Alabama, twice a year.

Q: Your record at plate tracks is so much better than anybody else. You’ve won 10 points races. Why are you better than other people here? And does that cause you more pressure? Or are you more relaxed when we come here?

EARNHARDT: “It doesn’t really feel like it’s a lot more pressure. I don’t know why. I don’t know what it is about myself, but I’ve had some really fast cars. If I looked back at all the races that I’ve run here, there are some where the car just didn’t have what I needed. Every driver wants their car to do something different. Or, races where we just didn’t have the combination of car and driver and the races that we won, we certainly did.

“One of the things that helped me a lot was when RCR and DEI and (Andy) Petree formed the RAD racing program that was strictly dedicated to plate racing. And Tony (Eury) Sr. and Tony Jr., just by happenstance, happened to be very smart about what they needed out of their plate cars and how to work in some of the gray areas that a lot of people didn’t know about. Watching my dad, who was one of the best, I learned a tremendous amount because I solely watched him, whereas someone else who grew up around the sport may not have focused as much on one particular driver. All those things maybe helped me develop into maybe a better plate race car driver than the average guy.

“But the cars are everything. If the car can’t complete the passes that my mind mentally wants it to make, then I won’t be as offensive and as confident in making those moves. I’ll make those moves less often and put myself in the least likely position to succeed. If I would go out there and drive the car and it’s just not doing what I think I need it to do, then your confidence goes down and you certainly aren’t the big dog out there and someone else sort of rises to the occasion throughout the day and throughout the event as the dominant car, the dominant driver, the guy with the best stuff; and he’s the one that tends to control the race.

“So, you’ve got to try to establish yourself as that guy all day long and I’ve had more success doing it that way here lately than I have taking it easy or just taking care of myself ‘til late. When I was driving the Bud car, around 2003, ’04, ’05 when we were winning all those races, I raced as hard in practices as I did in the race. And I think that since, you kind of can set the tone early in the weekend with your competitors that this is who you’re going to be out on the track; plus this is the car you’ve got. And when they start talking about who might be strong in the event before the event is even here, and you’re one of those names on the list, you know they’re thinking that you’re a guy they’re going to be looking for and you’re more likely going to get the drafting help when you need it, and so forth.

“They’re going to expect you to complete these passes and expect you to know what you’re doing and they tend to work with the guys that do that. I do, when I’m out there. I’m like, ‘Oh, I think he knows what he’s doing. I think he’s got a good car. I’m going to push him instead of this guy.’ ”

“So, that starts at the early part of the weekend. And I think there was a time around 2008 to 2012 where we didn’t race in practice. We’d just come here and made up laps by ourselves. And then we’d go race. It just didn’t feel like you really understood who you were or what your car was capable of doing before you got to the race. So, now we’re drafting a lot more. You get that confidence in your car in practice, and you get that confidence in yourself and that bleeds over into Sunday race.”

Q: In the aero package, what’s the fundamental difference that you’ve seen and felt this year between last year and this year?

EARNHARDT: “A lot less grip. The cars are really harder to drive. To run a good lap at Richmond last week took a ton of discipline and self-discipline; same thing at Texas. It’s particularly at a track where we have a lot of falloff and the tires get worn out and get slow. There is so much more going on inside the car as far as what the driver is facing and what he’s dealing with and how he’s struggling with the car. There’s so much more of that than we’ve had in the past. With the spoiler on the back, they didn’t handle bad, they always drove pretty good, be in the throttle all the time. If you’re in the throttle all the, you’re obviously pretty comfortable.

“But man, they were way harder to drive. This seems weird to me but it’s what you want. I don’t know if that makes sense to someone who’s not a race car driver, but you want it to be hard because all the guys in the garage think they’re the best driver in the garage. And the harder we can make it, the better shot each one of them think they’ve got at winning, right? So, all of us are like, make it harder; make it harder, because that helps me. That’s pretty much the mentality in there. And so, I think you see in my conversations with the fans a little bit, they’re seeing the cars move around. That’s something they hadn’t seen in a while.

“They’re seeing the drivers wrestle with the cars a little more, which is important, to having a more exciting product. And if they can figure out a way to capture more of that, particularly with the television audience, I think we will be going in the right direction. But, yeah, the cars are way slicker, they’re harder to drive, they slide around on top of the track as far as in the past, they felt forced into the track and felt much more comfortable.”

Q: Do you think we will see a lot of teammates working together?

EARNHARDT: “The Gibbs guys did it to perfection in Daytona.  I think that we did a great job of that the last time at Talladega at the end of the season when I needed to win and Jeff (Gordon) was trying to protect his position. The other drivers certainly worked with each of us a lot more than we typically would. I think it helped us and almost allowed us to achieve what we were trying to do there with winning the race.

“But what the Gibbs guys did was good.  That is what you want to do.  You don’t start from 20th and all of you work together up through there.  All of you have to find your way to the front on your own.  Once you get there you quit racing each other and just race everybody else.  It’s hard to do because somebody is going to have to be at the back of that line of teammates.  That is not where any of us want to be.  I would rather be leading every lap and I think all my teammates would certainly rather be leading every lap.

“Being the leader is so much easier than trying to hold off everybody that is going to get these runs. All they are going to keep doing is trying to get runs, get up beside you over and over and over. If you are third, fourth in line you may run side-by-side with somebody on your door for 20 laps, 50 laps before somehow your line can break free or that whole line dominates the particular line you are in.

“It just depends on how it works out. We can’t sit there in 10th place and work together because we are just going to run in 10th. You’ve got to get to the front on your own and once you get there hopefully, you find your buddies up there with you. Once you are together in the lead or toward the lead you take care of each other a little bit better. If somebody tries to make a move, one thing that I did last time, I had to win the race.  We got all single file up on the high side and I was just sitting there around sixth or seventh or eighth and I had to get to the front.

“We all know if you pull out you go to the back, but Jimmie (Johnson) was running around 10th and I knew he would let me in line. So, I could be more aggressive in trying to pass to go up toward the front and find my way toward the front and then we did. We got up in there in the top three and top two and that led to us being in the right position on those last final restarts to actually have a shot at winning. So, yeah, you can work together a little bit, but you have to find your way to the front independently more so, but again if we get in those single file lines where we are trying to hold everybody in their position.

“If the leader goes up to the top to basically see if everybody will run there and then anybody drops out of line is screwed. The leader wants this to happen because he will lead and not face any real challenge. That is perfect for the leader.  If you’ve got a teammate running 10th and you’re in fifth, you can be aggressive and try to screw that whole plan up knowing that your teammate might let you in if you happen to not make the right move and start to get shuffled to the back on your own. I hope that made sense.”

Las Vegas race results, driver points

Las Vegas race results
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Kurt Busch scored his first career Cup victory at his hometown track, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and is the first driver to advance to third round of the playoffs.

Busch led the final 26 laps, taking advantage when a caution came out in the middle of a green-flag pit cycle. Busch was the only playoff driver who had yet to pit before the caution.

Matt DiBenedetto finished second and was followed by Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Alex Bowman.

Click here for Cup race results

DRIVER POINTS

Alex Bowman holds the final transfer spot to the next round. Kyle Busch trails Bowman by nine points. Clint Bowyer trails Bowman by 20 points. Aric Almirola trails Bowman by 27 points. Austin Dillon trails Bowman by 32 points.

Kurt Busch wins Las Vegas Cup race in overtime

Kurt Busch
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After entering the Round of 12 last in the playoff standings, Kurt Busch won Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in an overtime finish, claiming his first win of the season and advancing him into the Round of 8.

Busch held off Matt DiBenedetto and Denny Hamlin to also claim his first Cup win at his home track.

Busch led 29 of the last 34 laps. His time at the front of the pack was a result of leading when a caution came out during green flag pit stops late in the final stage. DiBenedetto was on pit road when the caution came out with 33 laps to go and restarted first with Busch second.

“This is what kids dream of,” Busch told NBCSN. ”

The top five was completed by Martin Truex Jr. and Alex Bowman.

The two-lap dash was caused by an incident involving William Byron, Christopher Bell and Corey LaJoie with seven laps to go. Bell cut a tire from contact with the wall and as he slowed Byron ran into the back of his car before going into a spin.

LaJoie received damage as he tried to avoid the incident.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Denny Hamlin

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Elliott

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Joey Logano finished 14th after he had to pit on Lap 91 to fix a left rear tire rub, a result of contact with Kyle Busch following Denny Hamlin’s three-wide pass for the lead on Lap 88Tyler Reddick finished 38th after he tagged the wall late in Stage 2 and went to the garage ending his day … After finishing sixth in the first two stages, Austin Dillon finished 32nd after an overheating problem forced him to pit road for repairs with 50 laps to go.

WHAT’S NEXT: Race at Talladega Superspeedway, 2 p.m. ET Oct. 4 on NBC

Check back for more

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:

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Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

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Charlotte Roval to host limited number of fans

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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.”