Long: The kids are coming and focused on a Daytona 500 trophy

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The fissure between veteran and younger drivers, which bubbled in the offseason over the sport’s marketing, has moved to the track and set up a juicy storyline for Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Four days after veteran driver Brad Keselowski won the Clash, youngsters Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott won their qualifying races.

That Elliott and Blaney each won a restrictor-plate race — where cunning, courage and calm are often traits exhibited by older drivers — shows that these 20-somethings are as advanced as any generation and ready to challenge the status quo more consistently.

“I think from the time that Ryan started, he’s been good on the superspeedways and done a good job,’’ said former champion Kevin Harvick, who finished second to Elliott in the second Duel. “(Blaney and Elliott) are different because they have such a knack and have watched so many of these races. It’s not like they were racing on a computer, came through a different form of racing, whatever the case may be. Those guys had dads that were pretty darn good, … heard the lingo, heard the talk, watched the action on the racetrack. 

“They’ve seen as much of the progression of how all this works as I have. They may not have been in a car, but they’ve watched and learned. I don’t think the progression has been very good because they started good.’’

There actually has been a level of progression. Elliott recalls with disdain how he lost control of his car 20 laps into the Daytona 500 his rookie year in 2016 and finished 37th after starting on the pole.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson said the change took place after that race.

“Since that point, I feel like really not even the next year, but really the next race at Talladega, he and I made leaps and bounds in understanding what he wants in the car to race,’’ Gustafson said. “Ultimately when we gave him what he wants to race, he was pretty instantly very, very competitive. I think we got 90 percent of it right away, then he’s just continued to work on it and work on it and work on it. We continuously try to evolve.

“You want to get a car that is ultimately very fast, but drives well. We’ve continued to evolve that. He’s continued to evolve his craft. I think we’re getting better and better and better.’’

They’ve worked so well together that Elliott was leading late in last year’s Daytona 500 before his emptying fuel cell caused his engine to belch momentarily and that was enough to end his chances.

Last year was a bummer,’’ Elliott said. Unfortunately the beginning of many bummers throughout the season.  I hope that’s not the trend this year. I hope tonight is more the trend.’’

Former champion Kyle Busch, who finished fifth to Elliott in the second qualifying race, said Elliott ran a smart race in scoring his second consecutive Duel victory.

“Chase did a good job getting to the front,’’ Busch said. “(Denny Hamlin) was leading and (Elliott) was kind of pressuring him in some areas and doing some things to get up to the lead and once he got up there, he was able to hold on to it.’’

Blaney was joined by his Penske teammates Joey Logano and Keselowski in the first qualifying race. Penske again dominated. While Keselowski led the most laps in the Clash, Logano led the most laps Thursday night in their race. This time Blaney got by even if it wasn’t as he planned.

“That’s the same spot I made the move in the Clash and it didn’t work,’’ Blaney said. “Almost didn’t work tonight. I was coming with such a head of steam, I had to. Brad laid back so much from whoever was behind him, I kind of laid back to Brad off of four because I didn’t want them to get a huge run. It just propelled me so fast to Joey, I had to turn left or I would have ran him over.

“I didn’t really want to make my move right there because it didn’t work. It really shouldn’t have worked. I was trying to plot where to do the move better. I was thinking about that all week after it didn’t work in the Clash. That was not the spot I wanted to do it. I was coming with such a head of steam, I had to turn left or run (Logano) over.’’

Blaney has shown he’s willing to be aggressive and has a fast enough car to do so. That can be a combination that is hard to beat.

It was Thursday for him and Elliott.

Now, they have to make the right decisions for the 500 and put themselves in the right place in the final laps while trying to fend off many others. 

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Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.