(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Xfinity Series driver Brennan Poole built a city in his darkest hour

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Lego City
                                                                                   (Photo by Brennan Poole)

Brennan Poole is reminded of one of the most stressful times of his career every night.

Sitting on a TV stand in his home in Charlotte, North Carolina, is a city block.

There’s more than five buildings. A barber shop, a pet store and a few houses.

The city – built by Poole in December 2014 – is made of Lego blocks.

What led a 23-year-old driver to construct such a feat?

Years earlier, Poole began racing at a quarter midget track in Rio Linda, California — the same facility four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon got his start. But after 217 wins and nine championships through six series, Poole was trying to distract himself from the possible end of his career because of lack of sponsorship.

“It was just something to keep my mind off of it,” Poole tells NBC Sports in a phone interview. “I couldn’t think, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t do anything. I would just sit there and build. I built like a city in a month.”

THE PHONE CALL 

Two months before he built his city block, Poole won what he thought was likely his last professional race ever, an ARCA event at Kentucky Speedway.

Poole was two years removed from a full season in ARCA driving for Bill Venturini that saw Poole win at Pocono Raceway and Elko Speedway. But then Poole’s sponsorship money evaporated.

The 2013 and 2014 seasons were filled with Poole working for Richard Childress Racing filming Dartfish video – a program teams use that allows them to overlay video of one driver’s lap on top of another’s.

He also served as spotter for ARCA and Camping World Truck teams, while occasionally driving for Venturini’s team.

“I believed something would happen,” Poole says. “I was still trying to find some funding. I got probably a million nos over those two years and kept working hard at it.”

Though he managed two ARCA wins in 2013 in substitution of John Wes Townley, nothing materialized. Poole made seven starts in 2014 for Venturini while continuing his Dartfish and spotting jobs.

Then came that last ARCA race at Kentucky.

“It had been two years of trying to find funding and trying to get a ride and I felt like I was winning races and nothing was happening,” Poole says. “I was kind of to the point where I was ‘Hey, if this doesn’t happen, I’m going to have to do something else.’ ”

What would that be? Poole had graduated from high school a year early and moved to Charlotte at age 17 to pursue his stock-car aspirations, living on the couch of Late Model stock driver Jamie Yelton until he was 18.

By age 23, Poole owned a house and was living off a credit card.

“I can’t stay in North Carolina,” thought Poole. “I’m going to have to go home. Go to school. I don’t know. I’m going to have to do something.”

A month after that last ARCA race, a phone call put Poole in a state of shock.

FORT WORTH, TEXAS - APRIL 08: Brennan Poole, driver of the #48 DC Solar Chevrolet, leads Austin Dillon, driver of the #2 Ruud/Smurfit Kappa Chevrolet, during the NASCAR XFINITY Series O'Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 8, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

BACK FROM THE BRINK

The unexpected call had been from HScott Motorsports about possibly driving the No. 42 Chevrolet, which was co-owned by Chip Ganassi Racing.

Soon after, the anxiety set in that would result in Poole’s Lego city.

“I didn’t think anything was going to pan out because I didn’t have any money and I wasn’t sure what the team needed as far as sponsorship or what was going to happen or if they had anything ready,” Poole says. “None of that was covered in the phone call.”

Around New Year’s 2015, Pool found out the dream wasn’t over.

With sponsorship from DC Solar, Poole would compete in 17 Xfinity Series races for HScott Motorsports, splitting time with Kyle Larson and Justin Marks.

“It was kind of a huge relief when I found out around New Years that it was going to happen,” says Poole, who keeps the Lego City intact to remember what it felt like to know he would race again. “I can look at it every night and think of that moment.”

The beginning of the 2015 season was surreal for Poole, who admits he doesn’t really remember his first few starts.

“It kind of messed me up mentally because it was hard to be focused because I couldn’t believe I was there,” Poole says. “From absolutely nothing, to being with this great team with a great sponsor … I was just in shock.”

Poole’s best results in his 17 starts were top 10s at Las Vegas and New Hampshire. Halfway through the season he already knew he’d be competing full-time in 2016.

When he showed up at Daytona this February, Poole looked like a new man. After an awkward episode the previous season involving pushing his shoulder-length hair out of his eyes through an open helmet visor, Brennan cut his dark locks.

He also had a new number on his car, the No. 48, selected by Chip Ganassi.

“I’ve always looked up to Jimmie Johnson as a kid,” Poole says. “I’ve been saying in the shop among my team, we’ve been saying ‘rise to the occasion,’ because if you put that number on the car, you’ve got some expectations to live up to, right?”

                                                                        TALLADEGA TENSION

Elliott Sadler, gets out of his car and celebrates after being declared the winner of the NASCAR Xfinity Series auto race at Talladega Superspeedway, Saturday, April 30, 2016, in Talladega, Ala. NASCAR had to determine who was the actual leader when a caution froze the field in overtime. Brennan Poole (48) crossed the finish line first, but was denied his first career Xfinity Series win when NASCAR said the field was frozen with Sadler still ahead of Poole. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Brennan Poole is reminded about the “million nos” he received every race weekend.

He sees some of those companies sponsoring other teams.

“I was on the right path,” Poole says. “It was either that or I gave them the idea, right?”

Representatives of some of those companies were among those who lit up Poole’s phone after last month’s Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway.

The text messages arrived after Poole was the first to take the checkered flag, appearing to have won his first NASCAR race in his 26th series start.

“It was ‘Awesome job, I can’t believe you won!'” Poole says. “Then five minutes later, ‘Sorry.’ ”

Poole didn’t see those messages immediately. He was sitting near the start-finish line, along with Elliott Sadler, waiting to find out who won.

When Joey Logano was turned into the frontstretch wall after contact with Sadler, the track’s caution lights illuminated. NASCAR had to determine the running order when the caution flag waved. For five minutes, Poole and Sadler sat in their cars waiting.

“The longer it took,” he says, “the more I thought, ‘Man, this might be a lot closer than we all thought.’ ”

The decision came. Sadler emerged from his car, striking a victory pose atop his car.

Poole drove away. He was scored third.

Poole,  two years removed from almost leaving North Carolina and the sport behind, has no hard feelings about that finish.

“It’s just kind of a bummer because you’re so close,” Poole says. “But a rule is a rule. I’m glad that the right winner took the trophy home. It just wouldn’t feel right if I took it home and really wasn’t the winner.”

But he still can be. After “a million nos,” Brennan Poole continues to dream.

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

Chase Briscoe scores 8th Xfinity win of year with Las Vegas triumph

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Chase Briscoe met a preseason goal of winning eight races with his victory in Saturday night’s Xfinity playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Briscoe, who also won at Las Vegas in February, advances to the second round.

Briscoe dominated, winning both stages on the way to his second consecutive victory and eighth of the year. He led 164 of 200 laps.

“Awesome car,” Briscoe said on the radio of the car that also won at this 1.5-mile speedway earlier this year. “Can’t say enough, awesome car.”

Gragson said of Briscoe’s car on NBCSN: “Lot of race cars out here and one space shuttle.”

Las Vegas native Noah Gragson finished second and was followed by JR Motorsports teammates Daniel Hemric and Justin Allgaier. Ryan Sieg placed fifth.

Austin Cindric placed sixth and was followed by Michael Annett, Anthony Alfredo, Harrison Burton and Justin Haley.

Briscoe’s eight wins through 27 races ties him with Jack Ingram and Sam Ard for the most wins by non-Cup drivers through 27 races in a season. Ard and Ingram both did it in 1984. Briscoe’s eight wins ties him with Carl Edwards for most wins by a Ford driver in a season in the Xfinity Series. Edwards accomplished the feat in 2011.

“I knew this team was fully capable of achieving that and even more,” Briscoe told NBCSN of winning eight races this year. “I just can’t say thank you enough to Gene Haas and Tony Stewart and everyone that lets me drive these race cars. It has been an unbelievable season and we still have a lot, six more wins that we can try to get and a championship. That is what we are going to try to do. I am so happy to start the playoffs like this. After the last couple weeks we had, to go to Bristol and win and now here is a pretty good way to start our playoffs.”

The 25-year-old Briscoe does not know where he’ll run next season. He has a year left on his contract with Ford.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Briscoe

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ryan Sieg’s fifth-place finish is his fifth top five of the season, the most he’s had in a season. … Runner-up Noah Gragson has finished in the top six in all four of his Xfinity Las Vegas starts. He did it by overcoming a bloody nose during the race. At one point, he put roll bar padding up his nose to clog it. … Daniel Hemric had finished 24th or worse in four of his last five starts before Saturday’s race. He finished third at Las Vegas.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ross Chastain finished 16th, last among the playoff drivers. It’s his first finish outside the top 10 at a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

NEXT: The series races Oct. 3 at Talladega Superspeedway (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) in the middle race of the opening round of the playoffs.