Long: Opinions varied, but in the end it was still a race

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HAMPTON, Ga. — The victors were happy and the vanquished frustrated.

So in a sense, Sunday’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was just like any other race — even with a new rules package intended to keep the field closer together.

In some ways, the package worked. At a track where the leader has gone out to an advantage of close to 10 seconds in the past, the lead mushroomed only to about four seconds Sunday. Even then, there were battles at the front. Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick traded the lead four times within a dozen laps near the race’s midpoint.

“It just felt like a typical race up there,” Larson said after finishing 12th, hindered by a late pit road speeding penalty. “Just battling hard. I didn’t think the package made us battle for the lead any differently than the old package.”

The 25 lead changes were the most in the past three Atlanta races. Martin Truex Jr. nearly made it a 26th. He closed on Brad Keselowski in the final two laps but couldn’t get by him, losing by .21-hundredths of a second.

The Team Penske drivers all could move through the field after they struggled in qualifying. Keselowski started 19th, Ryan Blaney 26th and Joey Logano 27th. They combined to lead 96 of 325 laps.

Car owner Roger Penske gave the day’s racing “a solid B” noting that “nobody gets an ‘A’ on their first exam. I say it’s a solid B for NASCAR today because there were drivers who, Brad included, Joey twice came from the back, could pass cars. One thing that was amazing to me was someone on the high line could run (with a car) on the low line going into (Turn) 2 and stay with them and drag them back on the straightaway. I felt overall the package showed well.”

Not everyone was thrilled. Truex was frustrated with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who was a lap down, late in the race.

“They just have no respect for the leaders running for the win,” Truex said. “It’s completely uncalled for, ridiculous. It’s a shame.

“(Stenhouse) just kept hugging the bottom, hugging the bottom, hugging the bottom and knew that’s where I needed to run. I kept telling my spotter, kept telling his we need the bottom.

“These cars punch such a big hole and it’s so bad in dirty air, it completely killed us for 25, 30 laps to the point my front tires were gone once I finally got by him. Hell, I still ran down (Keselowski) in two laps from half a straightaway. We clearly had the best car and were in position to win. Guys a lap down have to have a little more respect than that.”

Kyle Busch, who has been a critic of this package, didn’t have his mind swayed by Sunday’s race.

“Traffic is really bad, aero-wise,” said Busch, who started in the rear in a backup car, ran as high as second, had a tire go down after contact and finished sixth. “You get behind somebody and they take your air away and you’re junk.

“You could make runs on people and have somebody mess up on a corner exit and get a good run. If you got a good run, you could go by them on the straightway. Being directly behind them is really bad. I think it’s worse than before.”

Aric Almirola also experienced some of the same frustrations. He started on the pole, led 36 laps early, fell back and then had a pit road speeding penalty drop him to 27th early in the race.

“My goodness was it a challenge,” Almirola said of running in the pack. “The cars make so much downforce and we’re all going so fast that it’s really, really hard to make passes until late in the run.”

Keselowski said one key factor for drivers is that they no longer can adjust the trackbar themselves in the car. That puts a premium on handling.

“To me the track bar adjuster always made it better to play defense, or easier to play defense,” Keselowski said. “And so I thought that was an interesting change. I thought you saw more comers and goers because of that personally, so I thought that was interesting.”

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said he saw “a fairly entertaining race.

“Like we said going into this race, we didn’t know what to expect either. We thought this package would showcase itself more as we got to the West Coast. With some really long green-flag runs, I think you saw the ability to get back up to the leader and make a pass, which is encouraging.”

Like this or hate it, this is what teams will be racing this season. While the package will change at some tracks — next weekend’s race at Las Vegas will feature aero ducts that should encourage more drafting — teams will have to figure out how to master all these changes. Those that do will celebrate like Keselowski did Sunday. Those that don’t will be bitter more often.

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