NASCAR’s best? ‘You’re looking at him’: Kyle Busch swaggers into Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The champ is here.

Swagger always has been a centerpiece of the Kyle Busch Experience, and you could look no further than Wednesday’s Daytona 500 Media Day for the latest evidence that the reigning NASCAR Cup champion still brims with confidence and peak sass that hardly has subsided since his second title in November.

Who’s the best driver in NASCAR?

“You’re looking at him,” Busch said without skipping a beat.

What do you think about the president possibly attending Sunday’s race?

“Rumors are rumors. I have a rumor that I’m not starting the Daytona 500, so how about that?”

How do you think the new short-track package for 2020 will affect performance at Phoenix Raceway (site of the relocated championship race this year)?

“New rules, old rules. Joe Gibbs Racing, baby! That’s where it’s at.”

A 20-minute interview session with Busch (who also delivered some sharp insight) felt very much akin to the engaged yet looser guy who rolled through Daytona last month with an appealing brashness in his Rolex 24 debut, playfully asserting his massive sway and his eventual quest for world racing domination.

There is one niggling fact, though, that always threatens to knock Busch down a peg at the World Center of Racing.

The self-proclaimed best active driver in Cup has yet to win NASCAR’s biggest race in 14 attempts.

Busch has only one points victory (July 2008) in 29 starts at Daytona International Speedway and a best finish of second in the Daytona 500 (to winner and teammate Denny Hamlin last year).

Such an omission might seem irksome for the superstar who hates to lose so much, his runner-up interviews sometimes can turn as churlish.

But for Busch, an apt pupil so aware of his place in NASCAR history that he often can recite arcane records and statistics from memory, getting asked about the Daytona 500 void on his lofty resume is “fine” because he appreciates the allure of the storyline.

“It’s attention to the sport, which is good for all of us,” he said. “Me not being able to win the Daytona 500 isn’t something that’s going to kill me, but it’s certainly going to weigh on me in the late goings of a race to try to get out there and win this thing.

“We were so close last year. There was just a couple circumstances, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion this year. But you know, it is what it is. We’ll go out there this year and see if we can’t give it the same shot we gave it last year.”

It would be easy for him still to be hung up on last year. Busch was leading under yellow with two laps remaining in the scheduled 500-mile distance when he chose the inside for a restart. Hamlin lined up on the outside, took the lead shortly after the green for good in the overtime finish.

It’s left the No. 18 Toyota driver still in a Daytona 500 winless column that also includes some Hall of Famers. That provides some solace for Busch, who can rattle off the winless streaks for Dale Earnhardt (20 races) and Darrell Waltrip (17) before their first triumphs in the Great American Race.

Tony Stewart never won, Mark Martin never won, Rusty (Wallace),” he said. “There are a lot of greats that haven’t. I would definitely not want to be on that list if I had my way, but you don’t always have your way, especially in restrictor plate racing with just how random it is. Years ago, probably ’85, ’87 maybe or earlier, it was way more skill, car, equipment, driver. But the restrictor plate stuff, it’s been way more random and unexpected.”

The plate era began in 1988, leading to the era of drafting producing some arbitrary results. Though the plates were exchanged for similarly shaped tapered spacers last year, the dynamics remained constant.

And with a larger spoiler causing massive closing rates and erasing the effectiveness of blocking, drivers were predicting Wednesday that the 62nd running of the Daytona 500 could produce as many wrecks than last Sunday’s Busch Clash (in which all 18 cars were involved in an incident).

That probably leaves Busch no more or less likely to win than in his previous 15 years of trying to win a career-defining race – not that his record needs burnishing.

With 208 national series wins, Busch surpassed a goal of reaching 200 last year that he openly had talked about reaching since a May 2009 win at Richmond. On the weekend he won his second championship, Busch, 34, fretted about being “behind” on trying to reach eight Cup championships (suggesting five remained in range).

He demurs on his place in history (It’s not for me to decide.”), but he is mindful of having the chance to be remembered as one of the greatest ever (“It’s not life or death, but it would certainly be nice.”)

As well as the goal-setting swagger required to get there.

“There’s opportunities out there that, all things considered and all the stars align, yeah, you can make it there,” he said. “You’d better set your goals high, as I’ve always kind of looked at it, and try and go out there and achieve them and not be totally disappointed or let down if you’re not able to achieve those goals. But if you set it at one championship or two championships, well, hell, I’ve already done it, so why am I still here?

“We keep changing that and moving those targets a little bit.”

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