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Why Las Vegas test is so important

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While nearly two dozen Cup and Xfinity teams will take part in this week’s two-day test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, at least one new driver-crew chief combination is putting its significance into perspective, particularly due to the new rules package that will mark the first time teams experience the new aerodynamic and horsepower elements.

“It’s almost at the very top (of all-time tests), obviously, because this is our one chance to work on communication and the new package, and we have some new players in the shop too, engineering-wise,” Matt McCall, crew chief for Kurt Busch at Chip Ganassi Racing, told a media gathering earlier this week.

“We’ve got a lot of different stuff we need to communicate on, not just between me and Kurt, but also the team and Kurt,” McCall added. “So, it’s pretty high up there, for sure.”

Busch, who won the 2004 Cup championship, is looking forward to the test at his hometown track and to work on car-to-team on-track communication. Busch owns LVMS’ speed record of 196.328 mph (set in 2016), but given the new package’s horsepower limitations, it’s unlikely he’ll come close to that speed in the test.

“For me, it’s just to get behind the wheel and to feel the Chevrolet and feel the drivetrain and to go through a few setup changes,” Busch said. “I think the most important thing is radio communication and how we want to mock-up certain pit stop sequences for changes as we’re out on-track and just having that banter back and forth so when we roll into Daytona, we’re best prepared.

“That’s a big reason why Chip Ganassi Racing is having the No. 1 car go do this test is to work the bugs out of it and just work those sequences into how we’re going to go attack things in Daytona.”

Las Vegas Motor Speedway officials are also touting the significance of the test on Thursday and Friday, issuing a media release with this headline: “Elite drivers ready for one of the most important tests in NASCAR history.”

The data teams collect from the test will go a long way towards adapting early in the season to 1.5-mile tracks such as Atlanta Motor Speedway and LVMS, which host the second and third races of 2019 – Feb. 24 and March 3, respectively – after the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 17.

In addition to Busch and McCall, the Las Vegas test will also be the first on-track interaction between several other driver/crew chief combinations including Jimmie Johnson and new crew chief Kevin Meendering, Chad Knaus and William Byron at Hendrick Motorsports and Ryan Newman and Scott Graves at Roush Fenway Racing.

The test will be open to fans with free admission. Also, NASCAR.com will be streaming parts of the test.

Here’s the list of drivers and teams that will be taking part in the Las Vegas test:

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
0 Landon Cassill, Starcom Racing, Chevrolet
1 Kurt Busch, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet
2 Brad Keselowski, Team Penske, Ford
3 Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet
6 Ryan Newman, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
13 Ty Dillon, Germain Racing, Chevrolet
14 Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford
18 Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
21 Paul Menard, Wood Brothers Racing, Ford
43 Bubba Wallace, Richard Petty Motorsports, Chevrolet
47 Ryan Preece, JTG Racing, Chevrolet
48 Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
51 Cody Ware, Rick Ware Racing, Chevrolet
95 Matt DiBenedetto, Leavine Family Racing, Toyota
Chevrolet W
heel Force car Ross Chastain, Chevrolet Racing
Ford W
heel Force car David Ragan, Ford Motor Company
Toyota W
heel Force car Drew Herring, Toyota Racing Development

NASCAR Xfinity Series
8 Zane Smith, JR Motorsports, Chevrolet
9 Noah Gragson, JR Motorsports, Chevrolet
18 Riley Herbst, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
98 Chase Briscoe, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford

Event schedule (all times Eastern Time):
Thursday, Jan. 31

11 a.m.–Practice begins; LVMS gates, grandstands and pit road (via infield tunnel) open to the public
2 p.m.–Drafting practice on track
3-4 p.m.–Driver’s lunch break, driver group interviews in media center
6 p.m.–Drafting practice on track
8 p.m.–Drafting practice on track
10 p.m.–Track secure

Friday, Feb. 1
11 a.m.–Practice begins; LVMS gates, grandstands and pit road (via infield tunnel) open to the public
Noon –Drafting practice on track
2 p.m.–Drafting practice on track
3 p.m. –Track secure

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Chevrolet boss happy with three-race Cup winning streak but wants more

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Even with a three-race Cup winning streak, the head of Chevrolet’s NASCAR program wants more victories as the playoffs near.

Jim Campbell, vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet, made the comments Wednesday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

In the last three races, Chevrolet has won with Alex Bowman (Chicagoland Speedway), Justin Haley (Daytona International Speedway) and Kurt Busch (Kentucky Speedway). Until that string, Chevrolet had won only once this year with Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega Superspeedway.

Last year, Chevrolet had four Cup wins, its fewest victories in Cup since scoring three wins in 1982.

“We have really, really, I think, increased the collaboration (among Chevrolet teams) to another level, and I think we need to because we’ve got to put more wins on the board,” Campbell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The Chevy camp is used to putting 10, 12, 15 wins on the board a year. Right now we’re at four. We expect more of ourselves. I know the teams are looking for more wins and I’ll call it top-five finishes. Talladega was kind of a turbocharger for us to get everyone really working at the next level.”

Chevrolet won at Talladega after an increased effort to have its teams work together throughout the weekend and during the race. Chevrolet made the effort after seeing how successful Toyota and Ford teams were at Daytona and Talladega by working together. Until then, Chevrolet had allowed its teams and drivers to go their own way at those tracks.

“Over the years, Chevy results were pretty doggone strong without a massive work-together effort,” Campbell said during the radio interview. “I think we go back to ’16 and Toyota put together an effort to get some of the (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) guys working together and I think in the fall, the Ford camp was doing that. So, it was time, it was time that we just pulled ourselves together and really worked across all of our teams.”

With seven races left until the Cup playoffs begin, Chevrolet has three drivers set for the playoffs via wins: Elliott, Bowman and Busch. Chevrolet also has three competitors who would qualify for the 16-driver playoffs as of today via points with William Byron 12th in the standings, Kyle Larson 13th and Jimmie Johnson 15th.

Johnson’s position is tenuous. He is 10 points ahead of Ford’s Ryan Newman, who holds the first spot outside a playoff position.

“I look at the trajectory,” Campbell said of Chevrolet’s progress. “Are we on the trajectory up or are we flat or are we down? I would say the momentum is going up, but it’s all performance based. We’ve got to put wins on the board, more top 10s.”

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AJ Allmendinger to drive in Watkins Glen Xfinity race for Kaulig Racing

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NASCAR On NBC analyst AJ Allmendinger will climb back behind the wheel for the August 3 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Watkins Glen International.

Allmendinger will pilot the No. 10 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing for the second time this season.

Allmendinger is a past winner at Watkins Glen, having won the 2014 Cup race there. He has 10 prior Cup starts at the upstate New York road course, with the win, three top-five and six top-10 finishes, plus one pole.

He also has competed in one Xfinity race at Watkins Glen, starting fourth and finishing second for GMS Racing last year.

It’s an honor to be able to compete for Kaulig Racing at one of my favorite tracks, Watkins Glen International,” Allmendinger said in a team release. “I’ve been fortunate enough to win there in the Cup Series and had a strong run finishing second last season in my only Xfinity start there.

Matt Kaulig, Chris Rice and all of the guys made Daytona so enjoyable and fun, I can’t wait to get to The Glen.”

Allmendinger raced for Kaulig Racing two weeks ago in the Circle K Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway on July 5, leading 33 laps and finishing third before the car was disqualified for failing post-race inspection, leaving Allmendinger with a last-place finish in the 38-car field.

Allmendinger has three additional Xfinity road course races scheduled with Kaulig Racing this season: Mid-Ohio (August 10), Road America (August 24) and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval race (September 28).

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NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kyle Busch back to No. 1, Kurt Busch to No. 3

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When it comes to this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, all we can say is, “Oh brother” … as in siblings Kyle and Kurt Busch.

Younger brother Kyle once again regained the top spot in this week’s rankings, knocking Joey Logano from the No. 1 perch after Logano held it the last two weeks.

And after not being ranked in the top 10 last week, older bro Kurt rockets up the rankings to No. 3 by virtue of his come-from-behind win last Saturday at Kentucky Speedway.

Also making a big move is Erik Jones, who goes from unranked last week to No. 4 this week. By contrast, six drivers from last week’s rankings dropped out of this week’s tabulations.

Here’s how this week’s rankings shape up:

1. Kyle Busch (39 points): Tenacious performance at Kentucky puts him back atop the rankings. Last week: 2nd.

2. Joey Logano (36 points): Car wasn’t wide enough to block all those behind him on the final restart. In his last three races on a 1.5-mile speedway, he’s finished seventh (Kentucky), third (Chicagoland) and second (Charlotte). Last week: 1st.

3. Kurt Busch (32 points): What a difference a win makes. But Busch’s ranking isn’t a total surprise. He’s been knocking at the door all season. Had he not pitted at Daytona two weeks ago, he may be riding a two-race win streak now. Last week: Unranked.

4. Erik Jones (23 points): Returns to playoff territory and seems to have momentum for a finishing kick. Third-place finish was his fourth top 10 in the last five races on a 1.5-mile speedway. That includes a third at Kansas and Kentucky and a fourth at Texas. Last week: Unranked.

5. Denny Hamlin (22 points): His pit crew has been called for an uncontrolled tire violation five times this year, tying the series high. That’s unacceptable. Despite the penalty at Kentucky, Hamlin finished fifth. Last week: 7th.

6. Kyle Larson (20 points): Top 10s in three of last four races – including a second (Chicagoland) and fourth (Kentucky) – have solidified his standing for the playoffs. Last week: Unranked.

7. Ryan Newman (16 points): Is in full grind-it-out mode for solid finishes exactly when he needs them. Finished ninth at Kentucky after starting at the rear because his car failed inspection. While he fell out of a playoff spot, he’s only two points away after scoring his fourth top-10 finish in the last five races. Last week: 8th.

8. Cole Custer (9 points): Kentucky victory in the Xfinity Series was his series-high fifth win of the year. Last week: Unranked.

9. Clint Bowyer (7 points): Ends four-race tailspin but still needs to work on amassing stage points. Last week: Unranked.

10. Chris Buescher (5 points): If all the tracks on the circuit were 1.5-milers, he’d likely be ranked higher. All four of his top 10s this year have come at 1.5-mile tracks. He’s been sixth at Charlotte, ninth  at Atlanta and 10th at Kansas and Kentucky. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Christopher Bell (4 points), Martin Truex Jr. (4 points), Tyler Ankrum (3 points).

Clint Bowyer looking for some of his old magic at the ‘Magic Mile’

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While the next race on the NASCAR Cup schedule is Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Clint Bowyer is already thinking four months and 17 races ahead to mid-November’s season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Winning a championship is the reason we are in this sport,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said in his weekly media release. “It’s why everyone puts in these long hours during a long season.

Winning a championship is what we dreamed about ever since we started racing. It was a great feeling to win the Xfinity title in 2008, and I can’t imagine the feeling of satisfaction you would get by winning a Cup title.”

But Bowyer also knows all too well that to make it to the four-driver, winner-take-all championship-deciding race in South Florida, he has a bit of work to firm up his position just to make the playoffs, which begin Sept. 15 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Clint Bowyer hopes to be smiling and partying after winning what would be his third career triumph this Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Photo: Stewart-Haas Racing.

Heading to New England, Bowyer is tied for 14th place with seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. They’re eight points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones, who holds the final playoff spot. Ryan Newman, the first driver outside a playoff spot, is 10 points behind Bowyer and Johnson. Daniel Suarez is 12 points behind the duo.

A win would lock Bowyer into the playoffs. That’s why Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is so important to the Kansas native.

Of Bowyer’s 10 career Cup wins, two have been at New Hampshire’s “Magic Mile.” He won there in 2007 and 2010. He also has four top fives and nine top 10s in 25 career starts at that track.

I love New Hampshire,” Bowyer said. “That place just fits my driving style.

We don’t get up to that part of the country a lot, so it’s good to see the race fans there. They have so many tracks and they love their racing, from Modified to Late Models to our stuff. The support races they put on at New Hampshire are some of the best of the year. Man, do they like to party there.”

Bowyer will be partying himself if he can win Sunday’s race. Still, it’s not been a bad season for Bowyer to date, either. He has five top fives and four other top-10 finishes.

Bowyer is coming off a sixth-place finish at Kentucky last Saturday, a marked improvement from what he suffered through in three of the four previous races with finishes of 35th (Michigan), 37th (Chicagoland) and 34th (Daytona).

We dug ourselves a hole in June and we are trying to climb out of it,” Bowyer said. “We aren’t a 16th-place team. I know we are better than that.”

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