(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.

Today’s Xfinity race at Kansas: Start time, lineup and more

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The first race of the round that will determine the championship field of the 2019 Xfinity Series playoffs will take place today at Kansas Speedway.

The eight drivers who are vying for the Xfinity title are: Christopher Bell, Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Noah Gragson, Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe.

Here’s the information for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: : Stephen Durrell, executive director of the Kansas Lottery, will give the command to start engines at 3:02 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:13 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage opens at 10 a.m. Qualifying is 12:05 p.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 1:15 p.m. Driver introductions are at 2:30 p.m. The invocation will be given by Captain Bill Petree, Whiteman Air Force Base at 2:55 p.m. The National Anthem will be performed at 2:56 p.m. by Joshua Morgan.

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

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

TV/RADIO: NBC will televise the race. Coverage will begin at 2:30 p.m. with Countdown to Green, with the race broadcast beginning at 3 p.m. Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcast will begin at 2:30 p.m. and also can be heard on mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

WATCH ONLINE: Click here for NBC’s live stream of the race.

FORECAST: Wunderground.com forecasts mostly cloudy skies with a temperature of 60 degrees and a 3% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: John Hunter Nemechek led the final 30 laps to win here a year ago.

STARTING LINEUP: Check back after the conclusion of Xfinity qualifying at 1 p.m. ET.

Saturday schedule at Kansas Speedway

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The playoff race weekend continues at Kansas Speedway today.

Cup teams will qualify for Sunday’s race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) today while the Xfinity Series begins its Round of 8.

wunderground.com forecasts partly sunny skies, a temperature of 64 degrees and a 20% chance of rain at the start time of the Xfinity Series race.

Here’s the day’s schedule with TV and radio info.

All times are Eastern.

Saturday, Oct. 19

9 a.m. – 3 p.m. – Cup garage open

10 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

12:05 p.m. – Xfinity qualifying; single car/one lap (NBC Sports App)

1:15 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

1:35 p.m. – Cup qualifying; single car/one lap (NBCSN, Motor Racing Netowrk, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

2:30 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

3 p.m. – Kansas Lottery 300; 200 laps/300 miles (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Long: Even through pain, a smile emerges from Kaulig Racing’s Chris Rice

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Chris Rice punctuates tweets with #Happy and whatever day of the week it is. Co-workers hold him accountable if he doesn’t smile because he’s always encouraging people to smile. His goal is to make everyone feel good.

Even when he hurts.

The last few months have tested Rice, president of Kaulig Racing, in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

Nick Harrison, crew chief for Justin Haley’s team, died July 21. The team’s hauler crashed Wednesday on the way to Kansas Speedway for Saturday’s Xfinity race (3 p.m. ET on NBC). A few hours later, Rice found out his family’s dog, Kiki, was missing.

“The racing is minimal to what I’ve been through this year,” he said.

Still, Rice had reason to smile this week. Both the driver and backup driver in the team’s hauler escaped serious injuries. And Kiki was found a day later about 4 miles away.

Rice says faith has helped him through such challenging times. His voice softens when he talks about how he found out Harrison had suddenly died. Rice got a call from Harrison’s phone at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, a day after the New Hampshire Xfinity race.

‘When I picked up the phone and it was not Nick, it changed my life,” Rice said.

On the phone was one of Harrison’s friends. He told Rice that Harrison had been found dead.

Rice helped Kaulig Racing grieve for Harrison while continuing with the season and the demands a racing schedule presents. His message often was that each day will get better.

Then come days like Wednesday.

The team’s hauler driver had a medical issue and the truck ran through a guardrail, went down an embankment and crashed into a wooded area in Western North Carolina.

Rice went to the crash site. Seeing the overturned hauler and debris strewn, stunned Rice. The windshield was knocked out. Wheels turned backward. The hauler smashed.

“The shock of seeing how bad it was got to me more than anything else,” he said. “The joy is that (the drivers) lived through this.

“We can replace all that other stuff. The one thing we cannot replace is life.”

Later that day, Kiki, a 12-year-old lobsta obsta that Rice and his family rescued 11 years ago, went missing.

“When I was looking for my dog, we walked and we walked and we cried and we cried,” Rice said.

Any pet is special but few are a life saver. That’s Kiki.

Rice’s wife, Tammy, is allergic to shellfish. She had an allergic reaction one night about a year ago while asleep.

“(Kiki) woke my wife up,” Rice said. “Just kept beating on her, woke her up. If not, should have never woken up.”

Tammy posted on Facebook that they had lost the dog this week. The next day, they got a call that Kiki had been found.

Even then, Rice had his doubts. There had been some foxes and coyotes in their neighborhood at times.

When they arrived at the shelter, the dog was Kiki.

It was another reason for Rice to smile.

“I don’t know what day is coming next,” Rice said. “I take what we have today and try to make the best of it. When I wake up tomorrow, I’m glad I woke up and I am going to help the next person.”

 

Daniel Hemric fastest in final practice; Kevin Harvick second

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Daniel Hemric turned the fastest lap Friday in the final Cup practice at Kansas Speedway, turning a 177.830 mph lap in his No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

Kevin Harvick was second followed by Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski (who paced the first practice) and Ryan Blaney.

Hemric has yet to announce a ride for 2020 after RCR announced last month that the rookie would be replaced by Tyler Reddick next season.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Suarez and Aric Almirola rounded out the top 10.

Here are the rankings speeds of the other playoff drivers: Denny Hamlin 12th; Alex Bowman 15th; Joey Logano 16th; Clint Bowyer 19th; Chase Elliott 20th; and William Byron 22nd.

Click here to see where things stand in the playoffs standings entering Sunday’s second-round cutoff race at Kansas.

Click here for speeds from the final practice at Kansas.

Click here for the speeds during the first Cup practice of the weekend at Kansas.