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Xfinity Series Spotlight: Q&A with Brandon Jones

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Wednesdays were an important part of the week for Brandon Jones.

That was the day the Atlanta native and some high school friends would leave school and head to Braselton, Georgia, home of Lanier Raceplex.

“We thought we were ready to race,” Jones told NBC Sports of one of his early racing memories. “The first ever race was me and two other guys out there on a little short track racing. … I ran around this guy forever. Didn’t pass him, didn’t hit him. Just ran really conservative. I wanted to pass him, but I just couldn’t figure out how to do it.”

He’d figure it out, but years later, Jones would find himself in similar positions. In 2016, Jones competed in his rookie campaign in the Xfinity Series driving the No. 33 for Richard Childress Racing. It was his first full-time season in any NASCAR series.

“I caught myself doing a lot of things, like putting myself in a lot of small holes that I normally wouldn’t have taken,” Jones said of his rookie season. “That became a habit as I was racing with those guys that have more experience. I didn’t even know I was doing it and then I was looking back, ‘Holy crap, I didn’t even know I could do that.’ Seeing how far I could take myself. I found some limits.”

In February, Jones took some of the lessons and put them toward earning the pole for the Xfinity Series opener at Daytona International Speedway. It was his first pole in 69 NASCAR starts.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: If you were in the Cup night race at Bristol, what would be your introduction song?

Jones: Man, I have put a lot of thought into this, too. Probably “House of the Rising Sun” by Five Finger Death Punch.

NBC Sports: Why a cover of the original?

Jones: They kind of took old school, western themes at the beginning and I kind of like that style now. Outlaw, western stuff like that. The cowboy-type stuff, I enjoy it. I don’t like the middle part though. I’m not a heavy metal death fan. I love country music, they kind of flipped flopped on it.

NBC Sports: What was your first car?

Jones: My first car was a Dodge Ram pickup truck. I ended up later, after I moved up here to North Carolina, meeting a buddy through racing. We ended up lifting it up and putting a big motor in it and stuff. That turned into not a daily driver.

NBC Sports: Have you ever named a car, whether it be a race car or street car?

Jones: My big red Dodge, everyone called it “Clifford” in high school.

NBC Sports: What’s on your bucket list that’s not related to racing?

Jones: Probably going up in one of the F-16 fighter jets, something like that. I enjoy doing things with the military, I’ve gone out and trained with them before and I’ve done obstacle courses and done a lot of cool stuff with them. Flying in one of the jets is something I haven’t done. … That’s next on the list.

NBC Sports: What’s the best race you’ve ever seen in person?

Jones: It probably wasn’t the best race I’ve ever seen, but it was the most exciting for me. It was Las Vegas (Motor Speedway) a long time ago, my very first race ever that I went to. I was pretty young, this was probably in 2009 or so. I was just overwhelmed by the racing. I went to driver intros and all that stuff. I made the ultimate fan day out of it.

NBC Sports: What do you remember about the first time you met Richard Childress?

Jones: It was the same day I think. Looking back on it it’s crazy that I knew him so young … I met the Dillon boys. They were (about) 13 and up in one of his suites playing video games and stuff and not even caring about the race. It was pretty funny. It’s cool to see how we all work together now. Just a small world type deal.

NBC Sports: Growing up, who was your favorite NASCAR driver?

Jones: It was whoever won the previous week. I didn’t have a clue … about driver personalities or anything. Every week it was like ‘Oh man, Jimmie Johnson was the winner that week, so he’s going to win next week.’ I bounced back and forth between a lot of them. But I did have a lot of Jimmie Johnson gear. I had the jacket and the necklace and an action figure.

NBC Sports: You had a Jimmie Johnson action figure?

Jones: I did, yeah. It was kind of like a stationary one. It was on a platform.

NBC Sports: What would be your dream concert?

Jones: I just knocked Granger Smith off my bucket list, and he’s probably my favorite country music singer. … He’s got a couple of songs that are just starting to take off, like top five on the country music charts. We actually arranged to hang out with him before the concert, so we got to see him before he went on stage. The only thing I want to see now, and I think we’re going to in Charlotte, is (Granger Smith at the Circle K) Speed Street (Festival). … When we saw him he didn’t have his full band with him, it was just him playing his guitar and singing. I think the one in Charlotte he’s coming to, he’s bringing the entire band. That will be my next one to go see.

Previous Xfinity Spotlight Q&A’s

Justin Allgaier

Darrell Wallace Jr.

Michael Annett

Ryan Reed

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NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET: Las Vegas recap

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN and will look back at the weekend’s racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Steve Letarte will be joined by Kyle Petty and Nate Ryan.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

After Las Vegas incidents, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson look for Richmond rebound

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas leaves Chip Ganassi Racing with a mixed bag of potential strategies to develop heading into the next race, this Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Kurt Busch, the first NASCAR playoff champion in 2004, was involved in a wreck at Vegas with eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 189 that knocked him out of the event, ending with a last-place finish of 39th.

We were trying to go for the same spot in the middle, it wound up four-wide, got a fender rub and our day’s done,” Busch told NBCSN after he left the medical center. “It just happened that fast. Everyone wants to try to get to the middle and that’s where you make up the most spots and Truex and I were going for the same piece of real estate.”

As a result of the poor finish, Busch finds himself in 14th place among the 16 playoff contenders, a distant 63 points behind points leader Truex Jr.

How Busch rebounds at Richmond will go a long way toward determining whether he will advance to the Round of 12 following the Roval elimination race at Charlotte in two weeks. Busch is currently 14 points behind 12th-ranked Aric Almirola, but he is also only 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones.

There’s no question Busch is in need of a big comeback at Richmond, a track that he has had decent success at, including two wins (last time was in spring 2015), seven top five and 15 top-10 finishes in 37 career Cup starts there.

A win would immediately wipe out the Las Vegas nightmare and push Busch into Round 2.

And then there’s teammate Kyle Larson, who had a car that looked like it could challenge for the win at Vegas. But a costly pit road penalty — a behind-the-wall crew member trying to grab tires back over the wall slipped, touching the ground on pit road — pushed Larson back and he wound up playing catch-up the rest of the race. He settled for an eighth-place finish that potentially could have been a top five showing had it not been for the penalty.

Our car was better than what I thought it was going to be,” Larson said. “We were able to battle up front there in the second stage. Then, we had the pit road penalty and had to come from the back.

The restarts were crazy and I was just being safe. It probably cost us a little bit, but we still got a top-10 out of the day and some decent stage points. So, all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad day.”

Busch has one win this season, while Larson is still looking for his first.

Our cars have definitely been good enough to win, we just have to put the whole races together at this point,” Larson said. “We want to win. We’ll keep working at it and hopefully we can knock one out before the season is over.”

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Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.