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NBC Sports Power Rankings heading to Las Vegas

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Denny Hamlin is out, and Kyle Busch is in – in first place for this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, that is – heading into Sunday’s race at Busch’s home track, Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Busch was unanimously selected by NBC Sports’ NASCAR Talk writers for the top spot, while Daytona 500 winner Hamlin dropped to fifth.

Brad Keselowski, who didn’t receive any votes in last week’s Power Rankings, vaults to the No. 2 spot after winning the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway — and while battling flu-like symptoms, no less.

Other notable jumps: Kevin Harvick (from ninth to third this week), Kyle Larson (zero votes last week to fourth) and Martin Truex Jr. (zero votes to sixth this week).

Dropping out of this week’s Power Rankings: Jimmie Johnson, Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Preece, Ross Chastain and William Byron.

Here are this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Kyle Busch (40 points): One of two drivers to finish in the top 10 in this season’s first two races. At Atlanta, he overcame a cut tire and had to navigate through the field in the new rules package to finish sixth.

2. Brad Keselowski (33 points): Racing while sick is one thing; winning while sick – particularly with having to race 500 miles – is a major accomplishment.

3. Kevin Harvick (26 points): Take away a wreck that wasn’t his fault at Daytona, and the Stewart-Haas Racing driver would be in the top two.

4. Kyle Larson (25 points): Having the strongest car at Atlanta could bode well for the future, but Las Vegas will be a better indicator of his speed.

5. Denny Hamlin (21 points): With a win at Daytona and 11th at Atlanta, he’s off to a strong start for 2019. Can he continue his success during the three-race West Coast swing?

6. Martin Truex Jr. (19 points): In his second race with Joe Gibbs Racing, Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn showed they haven’t lost a step, at least when it comes to 1.5-mile tracks, placing second to Keselowski. Without lapped cars, maybe Truex is higher on this list.

7. Erik Jones (17 points): One of only two drivers (Kyle Busch is the other) to finish in the top 10 in each of the first two races: third at Daytona and seventh at Atlanta.

(tie) 8. Christopher Bell (10 points): With Daytona behind him, Bell picked up where he left off in 2018, leading all but 21 laps in the Xfinity race and sweeping every stage on his way to the win.

(tie) 8. Joey Logano (10 points): Mistakes and miscalculations held this team back at Atlanta.

10. Aric Almirola (8 points): Earned his first pole since 2012 and led 36 laps in the first stage before a speeding penalty dropped him deep into the field. Unlike Kyle Larson, he was able to get back into the top 10 before the end of the race, placing eighth.

Others receiving votes: Clint Bowyer (6 points), Chris Buescher (3 points), Kurt Busch (2 points) and Chase Elliott (1 point).

Jeffrey Earnhardt scores career-best Xfinity finish but wants more

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HAMPTON, Ga. — Jeffrey Earnhardt’s smile was pained.

Moments after finishing a career-best sixth in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he couldn’t help but think what might have been after restating on the front row with three laps to go.

“It’s a sore career-best, let me tell you,” Earnhardt said after emerging from his No. 18 Toyota Supra for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Earnhardt had never scored a top-10 finish in this series. He knew his nine-race deal with JGR was the opportunity of a lifetime. His previous best finish was 12th at Bristol in August 2014 and at Talladega in May 2015.

Before the season, Earnhardt told NBC Sports: “The pressure to go and get in a car that is capable of winning, that’s the pressure I’ve been looking for my whole life.”

That pressure Saturday?

“Best feeling of my life,” he said. “This is honestly a dream come true.”

Last week at Daytona, Earnhardt led the first 29 laps before finishing 15th. This time, he was at the front at the end.

John Hunter Nemechek’s spin set up the final sequence. The field pitted with six laps to go. Earnhardt entered pit road fourth and exited second to fellow JGR driver Christopher Bell.

The problem was that the inside line was significantly better on restarts. Bell choose the inside and that left Earnhardt on the outside. Bell took off on the restart and held off Cole Custer to win. Earnhardt fell back on the restart after spinning his tires.

“No one could restart on the outside, it was just tough,” Earnhardt said. “When we came out second, I was excited, but kind of bummed at the same time because I knew how tough it was going to be.

“I just hate it, man. You get put in that situation, you want to win races.”

Earnhardt next will be in the No. 18 in April at Talladega. He will next race in the Xfinity Series March 30 at Texas Motor Speedway with Xtreme Concepts Racing, which is aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing

“We should have a strong piece there, so I’m looking forward to running just as strong there,” Earnhardt said.

Christopher Bell wins Xfinity race at Atlanta

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HAMPTON, Ga. — Christopher Bell held off Cole Custer on the final lap to score his ninth career Xfinity Series victory Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The victory was the 150th for Toyota and first for the Supra.

“That’s really really big It all just boils down to the fact that you don’t get to be a first-time winner very often,” Bell said. “There’s a very good possibility Kyle (Busch) is going to win one of the next three (races) and I beat him to Victory Lane. I’m all smiles right now.”

Custer placed second and was followed by Justin Allgaier, Brandon Jones and reigning series champion Tyler Reddick.

Click here for race results

Click here for points report

Jeffrey Earnhardt placed a career-best sixth. His previous best finish had been 12th at Bristol in August 2014 and Talladega in May 2015. Earnhardt is not scheduled to be back in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 car until Talladega in April.

Bell led 142 of 163 laps.

Daytona winner Michael Annett placed 12th.

Stage 1 winner: Christopher Bell

Stage 2 winner: Christopher Bell

Next: The series races at 4 p.m. ET March 2 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Jeffrey Earnhardt, Xfinity team have been ‘putting all of our focus’ into Atlanta

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While last Saturday’s Xfinity Season opener at Daytona marked Jeffrey Earnhardt‘s debut with Joe Gibbs Racing, most of his team’s energy was spent preparing for another race.

The No. 18 team’s main concern entering 2019 was what awaited them in the season’s second race weekend in Atlanta.

“When we started to prepare for this season, we didn’t really focus on Daytona,” Earnhardt said in a media release. “Then we went down there and ran well. We’ve been putting all of our focus into Atlanta from the very start of this.”

In a rather uneventful Daytona race, the grandson of Dale Earnhardt Sr. started second and led the first 29 laps before losing the lead on the last lap of Stage 1 to Justin Haley and finishing fourth. He then placed outside the top 10 in Stage 2 and finished 15th in the race, three spots shy of his career-best result.

The 29 laps led were more than in his first 66 Xfinty starts combined.

Now comes Earnhardt’s second of nine Xfinity starts with JGR. He will try to really show off what he’s capable of as a driver on the abrasive 1.54-mile surface at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“Going into Atlanta, I feel like we’re going to be even better than we were last weekend,” Earnhardt said. “The Gibbs cars ran well in Atlanta last year, but it’s a track where the quality of your equipment really shows and it’s more about the driver than compared to Daytona, which can be a wildcard.”

Earnhardt has two Xfinity starts at Atlanta, but none since 2015. His best result is 25th.

JGR has two Atlanta wins in 43 combined Xfinity starts there. Both victories belong two Kyle Busch (2016-17). Last year JGR had one top five (Christopher Bell, third) and a top 10 (Kyle Benjamin, eighth) while Brandon Jones placed 17th.

“I really feel (Daytona was) just the beginning of what will turn out to be the best season I’ve had in a long time,” Earnhardt said. “As I said, we’ve been working on our Atlanta preparation for a few months now, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone when we go out and do the same this weekend. I’m looking forward to adding a few more things to the list of career firsts and career highs by the time we leave Georgia.”

Earnhardt’s crew chief, Ben Beshore, called Daytona a “positive” experience for the team but said Atlanta will present “quite a difference” when it comes to team communication.

“There’s a lot more going on,” Beshore said. “You’re not wide open all the way around and you’re not at the mercy of who is pushing you or who is in front of you. Atlanta is a lot more handling focused and Jeffrey is going to be out there by himself to where he controls his own destiny with the feedback he gives to us.

“We’ve done a lot of work on that communication ahead of time so that when we arrive there is already a comfortability level and we’re able to give him the adjustments he needs to keep the iK9 Toyota Supra up front.”

 

NBC Sports Power Rankings heading to Atlanta

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If you thought the second NBC Sports Power Rankings of the year would be a recounting of the top 10 drivers in the Daytona 500, you’d be wrong.

While 500 winner Denny Hamlin takes the top spot this week, followed by Joey Logano and Kyle Busch, there’s quite a bit of variety – and even a few surprises – in our top 10.

Our weekly NASCAR power rankings are an aggregate of the individual top 10s of NASCAR Talk writers Dustin Long, Nate Ryan, Jerry Bonkowski and Daniel McFadin.

Check it out:

1. Denny Hamlin: Yes, his Daytona 500 win was big – but how will he do in the other 35 races on the schedule? He’s coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. And don’t forget Sunday’s win broke a 47-race winless streak.

2. Joey Logano: In terms of pure driving, he was the best of Speedweeks – especially his last-lap pass from fourth to first in his qualifier win.

3. Kyle Busch: Still missing the Daytona 500 from his illustrious resume, but Sunday was the closest he’s come to getting it. He’ll be there soon.

4. Matt DiBenedetto: Could anyone have predicted Matt D. would have led a race-high 49 laps? And if he hadn’t been caught in the big wreck, a top-five finish was very much within reach. This kid is going places in 2019.

5. Ryan Preece: Made his first 500 start and turned heads with his incredible dodging of late-race wrecks. Finishing eighth should give him a boost going into the much more difficult schedule after Daytona.

6. Ross Chastain: Only driver to compete in all three Speedweeks points races, proved his worth by finishing in the top 13 in each of them, including a third-place finish in the Truck race and 10th in the 500.

7. Jimmie Johnson: Rallied back after penalty put him two laps down to finish ninth. He’s definitely a favorite at Atlanta (five wins, 14 top fives in 27 starts there).

8. Chase Elliott: Finishes weren’t stellar, but NASCAR’s most popular driver gets an A effort. No one tried harder to pass cars in Speedweeks.

9. Kevin Harvick: If his team is as strong with new package at Atlanta as before, look out.

10. William Byron: Another competitive driver taken out in a late wreck. After a rookie mistake by him caused a wreck at Daytona last year, Byron took his pole-winning car and led 44 laps in his first race with crew chief Chad Knaus.

Others receiving votes: Michael McDowell, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, Ty Dillon, Johnny Sauter, Michael Annett, Austin Hill, Alex Bowman, Jeffrey Earnhardt.