Long: Late to his own party, Chase Elliott enjoyed the ride

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — As the crowd gathered, Bill Elliott, who had been on the backside of Watkins Glen International’s 2.45-mile circuit, appeared.

Crew members, who had celebrated on pit road, soon followed.

Then came the drivers. Friends Ryan Blaney and Bubba Wallace walked over. So did Kyle Busch and Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron.

They all stood around waiting.

Finally, Chase Elliott arrived in Victory Lane.

It was a scene NASCAR and fans had awaited since Elliott’s Cup debut in March 2015, a day heralded with hope and hype for what Bill Elliott’s son could someday do for the sport.

MORE: Chase Elliott receives hero’s welcome in Dawsonville

Signed to a contact by Rick Hendrick at age 15, an Xfinity champion at 18 and the heir to Jeff Gordon’s car at 20, Elliott combined heartbreaking looks with a hot rodder’s drive.

Add that famous surname and how could he not be a superstar in the sport? All that remained was for him to win.

He couldn’t for 98 Cup races — nearly the length of three full seasons. Blaney won during that time. Kyle Larson won. Erik Jones won. Chris Buescher won. Austin Dillon won a Coca-Cola 600 and a Daytona 500.

Elliott fell behind his generational classmates. He came close to winning at times but those results often left him a frustrated or angry eyewitness to someone else’s joy.

Last year proved particularly painful for him.

Busch passed Elliott for the lead coming to the white flag at Dover last October to win. After Elliott parked his car on pit road, he sat there. He removed his helmet and placed his head in his hands. Jimmie Johnson approached but knew there was little to say that would console his teammate. Instead, Johnson helped shield Elliott from the crowd, giving the youngster a moment to vent with salty language.

Four weeks later, Elliott led less than three laps from the scheduled end at Martinsville before he was spun by Denny Hamlin. They engaged in a heated debate afterward that continued at Phoenix a few weeks later when Elliott roughed up Hamlin on the track in retaliation.

Late restarts cost Elliott wins at both Michigan races in 2016, as he piled up second-place finishes. He was a runner-up eight times in those first 98 races, matching what his father did before Bill won his first Cup race — which came on a road course.

Each weekend that Chase Elliott failed to win, the question loomed larger: When would the Hall of Famer’s son win in NASCAR’s premier series?

Elliott felt the pressure, burden and disappointment. Sunday morning, he turned to a football coach for guidance.

As Elliott passed the time before the mid-afternoon start, he pulled up a video of Georgia football coach Kirby Smart from last month’s SEC Media Day. Smart spoke with the calm conviction of a preacher when asked about pressure and expectations.

“I think potential is dormant ability,” said Smart, whose team lost the national championship game in overtime to Alabama in January. “And I think effectiveness is what we get out of our potential. And we talk to our players all of the time, the pressure is really a privilege.

You should feel privilege to have pressure to win games, to have expectations. We can’t run from those things. We know that. If pressure is a privilege, how you manage that and how you embrace that and our coaching staff getting the effectiveness of our players out is what’s important to us.”

Smart’s response resonated with the 22-year-old Elliott.

He watched the video again and again and again.

“He’s talking to kids who are my age, if not younger than me,” Elliott told NBC Sports. “I felt like he was kind of speaking to me. For some reason it really sat with me. Just felt that was something to keep in the back of my mind. It is a privilege to be in those positions, and you’ve got to make the most of them.”

Elliott understood his situation. While Busch clearly had the best car going into the race, Elliott was in that next group. He was closer to a win than he had been most of the season.

This was his chance for a breakthrough.

Elliott didn’t back down against Busch early in the race. When Busch fell out of contention for the win, Elliott dueled reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr., who sought his third consecutive road course victory.

Elliott assumed the lead on Lap 57 when Busch had to pit a second time under caution because of an issue with his team’s fueling left his tank about half empty.

Truex quickly moved to second on the restart but then laid back, saving fuel and waiting to pounce. Elliott also saved fuel. His lead over Truex dwindled, but it was too early for Truex to make a move. He stayed close enough to remain in Elliott’s rearview mirror.

At the behest of crew chief Cole Pearn, Truex pressured Elliott, hoping to run Elliott out of fuel if he couldn’t get around him.

Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson watched from the pit box while he and his team calculated fuel mileage.

“You don’t know how much fuel you’re saving,” said Gustafson, who celebrated his 43rd birthday Sunday. “We’re trying to do the best job we can calculating but you don’t know. It is a cat-and-mouse game. We hadn’t run that far into a run competing against (Truex) all race, so I didn’t know if his car was going to do better than ours or ours was going to do better than his.”

Gustafson said the team projected Elliott wound run out fuel on Lap 89.92 of the 90-lap race — essentially coming to the checkered flag.

Elliott didn’t have to time to ponder fuel because of a mistake on the final lap. He applied too much rear brake entering Turn 1. His car wheel-hopped and drifted wide into the right-hand corner.

“When that happens,” Elliott said of the wheel-hopping, “typically you’re either going to spin out or knock it out of gear and miss the corner. I tried to knock it out of gear, completely blew Turn 1”

Truex closed the gap.

All Truex needed was to get to Elliott’s bumper and in this summer of rock’em-sock’em finishes, Truex would continue the reign he, Busch and Kevin Harvick — the Big 3 — hold over the rest of the field.

Elliott rocketed through the esses and extended his lead on Truex. They both charged through the inner loop, their cars launching off the curbs. After exiting the carousel, Truex ran out of fuel but Elliott didn’t notice immediately.

“I was trying not to pay him much attention,” Elliott said. “I was expecting him to be three or four car (lengths) back coming out of the carousel.”

As Elliott approached the finish line and his first Cup checkered flag, spotter Eddie D’Hondt told him: “That’s one of many!”

Elliott screamed and then headed for his father, who had been spotting near the inner loop.

“I was going to go and absolutely burn it down to the ground in front of him,” Elliott said of the burnout he planned.

He couldn’t. The projection by Gustafson and the team’s engineers were incorrect. Elliott didn’t run out of gas just before the finish. He ran out of gas as he got to the inner loop after he won, going about a half lap beyond what he needed.

Elliott then found himself stranded on the track as fans cheered, his crew rejoiced and Hendrick Motorsports saw the end of a 37-race winless drought.

Johnson, who had a provided a confidant’s understanding to Elliott after that Dover despair, again knew how to help. He drove behind Elliott and pushed his teammate’s car the rest of the way so Elliott could begin his celebration.

“That’s something that I’ll never forget,” Elliott said. “His friendship has meant a lot to me and very appreciative of what he’s done in helping me be a better racer and a better person.”

After the celebration on the frontstretch, Elliott headed to Victory Lane. Instead of announcing his entrance by revving engine, his silent, out-of-gas car slipped in modestly in front of the large crowd that had been waiting.

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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.

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:

Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win but without hometown fans

Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

Germain Racing sells charter, will exit sport at end of season

Charlotte Roval to host limited number of fans

Friday 5: Team’s departure adds to ‘extremely stressful’ time

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NTSB releases final report on Dale Jr. plane crash

Bubba Wallace to receive Stan Musial award for extraordinary character

Long: 100 days left in 2020, what else can happen?

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