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Five can’t-miss NASCAR Cup races in 2019 beyond Daytona 500

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We’re 32 days out from the biggest NASCAR event of the season in the Daytona 500, a race of such importance that needs no explanation.

But what else is there to look forward to?

There are 35 other Cup points races this season and they’re not all created equal.

Here are five races to pay closer attention to this season.

– Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on Feb. 24 on Fox)

The second Cup race of the season will probably have its biggest spotlight in recent memory when the 1.5-mile track is the first to host the 2019 rules package.

Derived from the 2018 All-Star Race package, it includes a tapered spacer and is intended to provide closer racing. Cars will run 550 horsepower at all tracks 1.33 miles and larger, which includes Atlanta. At tracks less than 1.33 miles, cars will have 750 horsepower.

Combine the hopeful intent behind the package and a rough track surface that’s being kept in place by the “most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C.,” and you have no excuse to not tune in and see what happens.

Camping World 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on June 30 on NBCSN)

The race that marks the start of NBC’s portion of the NASCAR schedule set an incredible precedent in 2018. The 1.5-mile track debuted in its new spot on the schedule with Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch’s dramatic last-lap battle and Busch’s win.

Was it a result of the drivers involved? The hot Chicagoland surface? Lapped traffic?

Yes.

Can it be topped?

We can only hope.

Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on Aug. 4 on NBCSN)

From the green flag last year, the Cup race on the New York road course was a barn burner, ending with a duel between Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. that resulted in Elliott’s first Cup win as Truex ran out of gas.

Races on the road course have had increasingly memorable finishes over the last seven years (beginning in 2012 with Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose). WGI shows no sign of providing a snoozer in the near future, especially as long as pit strategy is involved.

Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 29 on NBC)

The final lap of last season’s inaugural Cup race on the Charlotte Roval  had enough drama for three races on the new road course.

From Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson‘s contact in the final turn giving Ryan Blaney the win; Kyle Larson hitting the wall twice and passing a stalled car at the checkered flag to advance in the playoffs; and Aric Almirola passing enough cars to advance himself.

Do teams have the oval-road course hybrid figured out after one year? It’ll be fun to watch that question answered.

First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Oct. 27 on NBCSN)

We’re starting to run out of fingers to use to list memorable events in Martinsville’s recent history of hosting a playoff race.

You could argue it started with Dale Earnhardt Jr. banging doors with Tony Stewart to win his only Martinsville clock in 2014.

Since then?

We’ve seen Matt Kenseth’s retaliation against Joey Logano in 2015, which resulted in Jeff Gordon’s final Cup win.

Two years later, Denny Hamlin wrecked Elliott from the lead near the end of regulation. Kyle Busch then won in overtime as Martinsville’s version of “The Big One” unfolded. Afterward, an angry Elliott confronted Hamlin on the track as fans filled the air with cheers and boos.

Last year Truex and Logano provided a thrilling battle over the last six laps. Logano performed the bump-and-run on Truex in the final turn to win the battle in the “damn war” (which Logano also won in Miami).

 

What might have been: Dale Earnhardt Jr. shares rejected Nationwide paint schemes

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You never know when Dale Earnhardt Jr. will strike.

At any moment Earnhardt’s Twitter account could provide a valuable insight on the state of NASCAR, a Tweetstorm detailing the history of a short track car he raced or some random retro photos from NASCAR’s yesteryear.

On Thursday, the NBC Sports analyst provided a nice “What if?”

After a user posted a series of NASCAR paint schemes that never saw the light of day, Earnhardt shared an almost one minute video. The video included a multitude of concept Nationwide paint schemes for his old No. 88 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports.

Watch the video in the tweet below.

For sake of comparison here are the primary Nationwide schemes that graced the No. 88 during Earnhardt’s tenure driving with the sponsor from 2015-17.

2017

(Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

 

2016

 

(Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

 

2015

 

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

 

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NASCAR teams look for social media savvy, on-screen charisma in eSports players

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Earlier this month NASCAR announced it was charting new territory with its first eSports Pro League.

In coordination with the Race Team Alliance and 704Games, the league is powered by “NASCAR Heat 3,” the latest installment of the gaming franchise from 704Games.

The eNASCAR Heat Pro League will begin next spring and culminate during the real-world NASCAR playoffs. It will feature 16 races with up to 16 teams and 32 drivers. Each team will be owned and operated by a NASCAR race team. Each team will field two drivers, one competing on Xbox One and the other on a PlayStation 4.

Those drivers will be selected in a draft scheduled for February. The deadline to qualify for the draft is Jan. 15th.

The latest episode of 704Game’s web series previewing the Pro League features team executives discussing what they’re looking for in the drivers they’ll draft in the spring.

JR Motorsports co-owners Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Director of Digital, Bryan Cook, explain they’re looking for more than just someone who can go fast on a digital track.

JRM is looking for someone who is deft at promoting themselves on social media.

“You want someone with a good, open, outward personality. Obviously we want them to go fast,” Earnhardt Miller said.

“We also want them to be hands on, engaged with fans and other sim racers and be able to market and represent themselves and us really well,” Earnhardt said. “A great way for drivers to get noticed is promote themselves through social media, whether it’s Twitter or Instagram. But they need to use the hashtag #eNASCARHeat.”

Cook explained that JGR seeks drivers who are “good on camera” in addition to being fast.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be the Carl Edwards of the eSports series,” Cook said. “But you at least at least have to have some kind of presence, be yourself. We want people who are authentic on the track and natural on the track. But also just natural in front of the camera, even if it’s front of a webcam.”

In other words, they want someone who will give a good postrace interview, just like in the real world.

Watch more in the above video.

Zane Smith gets eight-race deal to drive JR Motorsports’ No. 9 car

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Zane Smith, a member of the 2018-19 NASCAR Next class, has signed a deal with JR Motorsports to drive its No. 9 Chevrolet in eight Xfinity Series races in 2019.

Smith, 19, will compete at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (March 2), Bristol Motor Speedway (April 6), Richmond Raceway (April 12 and Sept. 20), Dover International Speedway (May 4 and Oct. 5) and Iowa Speedway (June 16 and July 27).

He will be sponsored by The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas for the Las Vegas race.

Smith joins JR Motorsports after making 36 starts in the ARCA Racing Series since in 2016. He finished second in the standings this year after earning four wins and 12 top fives in 20 starts.

The native of Huntington Beach, California, also made his Gander Outdoors Truck Series debut in June at Gateway Motorsports Park with DGR-Crosley. He finished fifth.

The move confirms that the No. 9 team will be piloted by multiple drivers next season.

“Zane is going to be an important part of the lineup for the No. 9 team next year,” said team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said in a press release. “It’s a great opportunity for him. The team is going to take on a different feel with a handful of drivers taking turns throughout the year, but the goal remains the same – to help these drivers gain experience and continue to advance their careers. We started the Xfinity program with that mindset and it’s something we’re proud to continue.”

The other drivers for the No. 9 as well as the crew chief and partner lineup will be named at a later date.

“I’m super pumped to be a part of JR Motorsports with the No. 9 team for eight races,” Smith said in the press release. “I’m counting down the days until Las Vegas, which will be my debut in the Xfinity series. I can’t thank The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas enough for making this happen, along with all of my other partners who have gotten me this far. Having Dale and Kelley (Earnhardt Miller) as bosses and to lean on is going to be awesome. They are huge icons of the sport. It is unreal to be a part of their team, so I’m just going to try and take it all in.”

Smith joins a JRM lineup that includes full-time drivers Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and rookie Noah Gragson.

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Top 18 moments from 2018 NASCAR season

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NBC Sports took a look back at the top 18 moments from the 2018 season, highlighted by chaotic last laps, historic first wins and championship runs.

No. 18: Tyler Reddick‘s first Xinity Series win of the season came in the first race of the year at Daytona; his only other win of 2018 was in Miami in the season ending race to win the championship.

No. 17: Christopher Bell won three in a row in Xfinity, the first driver to do so since Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 1999.

No. 16: Erik Jones gets his first Cup win and breaks the dominance of the Big 3 at Daytona in July.

No. 15: Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn snooker Kevin Harvick at Sonoma to force them into a two-stop pit strategy.

No. 14: The 2019 Hall of Fame Class was announced to include Jeff Gordon, Jack Roush, Roger Penske, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki.

No. 13: The “War of the Words” between Kyle Busch and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. following July’s Daytona race.

No. 12: Harvick gives son Keelan Harvick a ride to Michigan’s victory lane.

No. 11: NASCAR reveals a version of the new rules package in the All-Star race at Charlotte. Harvick won.

No. 10: Clint Bowyer snaps a 190-race winless streak at Martinsville in the spring.

No. 9: Hailie Deegan gets a historic win as the first female in a major NASCAR series at Meridian (ID) Speedway.

No. 8: “Sliced bread” Joey Logano becomes the toast of NASCAR with his championship win. Mark Martin gave Logano his nickname before he ever entered the Cup series.

No. 7: Ross Chastain shoulders the pressure and gets his first Xfinity win at Las Vegas. “I’m just a watermelon farmer from Florida,” he said at the start-finish line.

No. 6: Logano bumps Truex out of the lead in Turn 4 at Martinsville in the fall to win and clinch his spot in the Championship 4.

No. 5: The Kyle and Kyle show gets physical on the last lap at Chicagoland. Kyle Larson knocks Kyle Busch out of the lead. Busch returns the favor. Dale Earnhardt Jr gets a catch phrase with “Slide Job!”

No. 4: Austin Dillon kicks the season off in style by spinning Aric Almirola out of the lead on the last lap of the Daytona 500 and become the first driver to secure a spot in the 2018 playoffs.

No. 3: The end of an era. Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus part ways after 17 years together.

No. 2: Chaos on the Charlotte Roval including one the wildest last laps of the season. Ryan Blaney wins after Truex and Johnson crash in the final chicane.

No. 1: The beginning of the future. Chase Elliott wins at Watkins Glen after finishing second eight times. His Hall of Fame father Bill Elliott scored his first win on the road course of Riverside International Raceway after finishing second eight times.