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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.

Overton’s 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).

 

Friday 5: Cup rookie will ‘Turn the Page’ to new chapter

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HARRISBURG, N.C. — Wailing strands of a saxophone leap from Ryan Preece’s phone. The distinctive opening notes of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” take Preece back in time even as the NASCAR Cup rookie looks ahead.

“If you listen to the lyrics, there’s a lot of things I can relate to,” Preece tells NBC Sports. He speaks while seated at a table that comfortably accommodates 10 people in the competition room at JTG Daugherty Racing, his new home after running limited Xfinity races the past two years with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Although Seger’s song is about a musician, it could be about the highs and lows of a racer. Preece, born 17 years after the song’s debut, has lived life in the spotlight and experienced the late-night road trips on his circuitous path to Cup.

On a long and lonesome highway

The song’s opening line resonates with Preece. The 28-year-old Connecticut native raced modifieds throughout the Northeast and traveled to the South numerous times in his quest to reach NASCAR’s premier series. There were many nights on the road.

Preece worked his way to the Xfinity Series in 2016 but had limited success with an underfunded JD Motorsports team. With no other opportunities after that season, Preece returned home and faced the likelihood he would race modifieds the rest of his career.

Things changed when Carl Edwards shocked the sport by announcing in January 2017 that he would no longer compete. Joe Gibbs Racing suddenly had some Xfinity races available.

If Edwards had not left the sport, “I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” Preece said. 

“There was no talk of going anywhere. When I went home, I went home (after 2016). I spoke to a few teams and the (cost to run those cars) were so high. I just figured I could go make a living running a modified and winning. It wasn’t a sense of I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond … this was my best chance at being successful.”

Preece spent 2016 living in former Cup crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion’s race shop before moving back home after the season. After Edwards’ announcement, Manion called Preece and told him to contact JGR.

“I was going to figure a way out,” Preece said. “That was the chance I was waiting for.”

He gathered enough money for two races, won at Iowa and got two more races that season. That turned into 15 races in 2018. He won at Bristol. His success that season led to the ride at JTG Daugherty Racing in place of AJ Allmendinger.

When you’re ridin’ sixteen hours

and there’s nothin’ much to do

And you don’t feel much like ridin’

you just wish the trip was through

A crew member often played the song on long road trips and it has remained with Preece since, a reminder of those all-night drives from one region of the country to another to race.

As he plays the song on his phone, Preece slips back to the past. He recalls a time he raced at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut, finished around 11 p.m. and drove through the night with his team to be at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for a race that Saturday. He won that weekend.

Preece smiles at the memory.

Here I am

On the road again

There I am

Up on the stage

Here I go

Playin’ star again

There I go

Turn the page

“When I was younger, I was like that’s pretty catchy,’’ Preece said of the song. “As you grow older and you go through different events and different situations in your life, you start to relate to it. Every time there has been a great moment in my life, the more I can relate to that song.”

He hopes to add to the collection of memories this season with the No. 47 team. Preece is ready for the season to begin. He’ll get an early start. His team will be among those that will test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Jan. 31 – Feb. 1.

Shortly after that, he will be off to Florida to compete in his first Daytona 500.

Even as he heads on a new journey with Cup, Preece won’t leave the modified series behind. He plans to run a few races this season when his schedule allows.

But after years of going back-and-forth from the Northeast to the South, Preece has one trip left. He heads to Connecticut today to retrieve the last of his belongings and complete the move he and his wife have made to North Carolina. He also will tow his modified with him.

He plans to leave Connecticut at 3 a.m. Sunday. He knows through experience that’s the best time to depart to avoid New York traffic snarls.

One more overnight road trip. This time he’s headed for a new journey and a chance to turn the page in his racing career.

2. Study habits

Coleman Pressley admits he’s a “huge note taker” and he’s been doing just that as he reviews film and prepares for his first season as Brad Keselowski’s spotter.

Pressley, the son of former Cup driver Robert Pressley, spent the past four years spotting for AJ Allmendinger at JTG Daugherty Racing. Pressley became available after Allmendinger was not brought back for this season.

One of the biggest challenges for Pressley will be Daytona Speedweeks and the Daytona 500. Keselowski is among the sport’s premier drivers at that track and Talladega. He and former spotter Joey Meier — they had been together since 2006 until parting after last year — were among the top driver/spotter duos, winning four of the last 17 plate races (only teammate Joey Logano matches Keselowski’s record in that span).

Pressley, who doesn’t have as much experience spotting a car at the front of the field at a plate track, has been studying how the race is different there than in the middle of the field.

“I went to school the last two or three weeks just learning what the first two or three rows do,” Pressley told NBC Sports. “It’s amazing how much the draft changes in the first three rows then it does in the 10th or 12th row. I’m learning from arguably the best superspeedway racer right now.

“I feel like I’ve learned more in two or three times sitting down with Brad than in four years of spotting. He’s that good at it. It’s like dealing with AJ at a road course. AJ is so good at a road course, I learned a lot from him there.”

One of the challenges with racing at Daytona is how the lead car controls the field and moves up and down the track, blocking the run from the cars in the lanes behind. It’s critical for the spotter to tell the driver which lane is making a move so the driver can block and remain in the lead.

“Everything that we’re reviewing is more situational,” Pressley said. “Like what happens when three cars are this close and this lane is a car length apart. … Does this change if you’ve got a slower car third in line or what happens if there’s three lanes. We’re trying to make sure that when we get there, when I’m on the roof, that when I see something I know what is going to happen.”

Pressley already has watched last year’s Daytona 500 multiple times and planned to watch the race with Keselowski this week.

3. Caution laps won’t count

South Boston Speedway will not count caution laps this season for its local division races 150 laps and shorter, the track announced this week.

It’s an interesting concept. While it’s not something that could be done for a 500-lap Cup race, maybe it is something to ponder for the K&N Pro Series. Possibly a Truck race. Or maybe don’t count caution laps in the last 50 laps of a Cup or Xfinity race at a short track.

Maybe that is extreme, but with NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying last fall that “everything is in play” when examining the sport, why not consider such an idea?

Cathy Rice, general manager at South Boston Speedway, a .4-mile track, told NBC Sports that the change — caution laps did not count previously for local races 75 laps or less — was made to give fans more racing.

What if the race has several cautions and the night stretches on? Rice, entering her 31st season at South Boston, said they would shorten the event. It goes back to her belief that they should limit the racing to three hours (not including practice and qualifying). If the first race takes the green flag at 7 p.m., then the checkered flag should wave on the final race by 10 p.m. so fans can return home at a reasonable time.

“I’m pretty hard on that … that’s what we want to do, that’s what we’ve got to do,” Rice said.

Rice said she’ll keep a close eye on how long the races go with the caution laps not counting. The rule may work perfectly or may need some tweaking, but for Rice it was worth trying after fans had told her they wanted more green-flag racing.

That’s what they’ll get this season.

4. Close quarters

Daniel Suarez’s first time on the track with his new team at Stewart-Haas Racing was Wednesday and Thursday at a Goodyear tire test at Auto Club Speedway.

Two other cars were there, including Suarez’s former team, the No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing now driven by Martin Truex Jr.

5. NBC SPORTS SCORES app 

The NBC SPORTS SCORES app is a new way to engage, read and watch all of the content across our platforms.

Available on iOS and Android, the NBC SPORTS SCORES app has up-to-date scores, standings, schedules, podcasts, access to NBC Sports radio content, videos and more.

You can also get all of the latest NASCAR news on the app from NASCAR Talk. All of the NBC SportsTalk sites are available on it.

Click on the links below to download the brand new NBC SPORTS SCORES app via iTunes and Google Play.

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/nbc-sports-scores/id1123078102?mt=8

Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.nbcsports.news&hl=en_US

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Social Roundup: Drivers get to race during tire test at Auto Club Speedway

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The build up to the 2019 Daytona 500 got underway yesterday in California with the first of a two-day Goodyear tire test at Auto Club Speedway.

The first drivers to see on-track action this year were Martin Truex Jr., defending champion Joey Logano and Daniel Suarez.

While it’s Truex (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Suarez’s (Stewart-Haas Racing) first time in the car with their new teams, it’s also one of the first chances drivers have gotten to experience the Cup Series’ new rules package.

With the package, which includes a tapered spacer, teams will have 550 horsepower at tracks 1.33 miles and larger, and 750 horsepower at tracks shorter than 1.33 miles. Auto Club Speedway is a 2-mile oval.

Here’s a look at how the test played out Wednesday via social media. As you can tell, the drivers didn’t keep to themselves on the track.

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Three Cup teams set for first Goodyear test of year

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While many are counting down to the Daytona 500 (39 days), the first NASCAR action of 2019 is here with a two-day Goodyear tire test.

Three Cup Series teams will test Wednesday and Thursday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

Joey Logano (Team Penske), Martin Truex Jr. (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Daniel Suarez (Stewart-Haas Racing) will participate in the test.

The test will be the first on-track action for Truex and Suarez with their new teams. Suarez was announced as joining SHR on Monday. 

Ticket owners for the March 17 Auto Club 400 will be able to watch the test Wednesday. They can watch from the Infield Terrace Suite rooftops just above pit road from 1 – 7 p.m ET.

Hard Card members (ticket holders who renewed their tickets before the deadline) will have the opportunity to reserve a seat to attend a special Q&A session with Logano on Wednesday after the session concludes.

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Milestones Cup drivers could reach in 2019

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NASCAR Cup drivers have many milestones ahead of them in 2019.

Here is a look at some that could be reached this season:

Wins

Jimmie Johnson has 83 victories and is tied with Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time list. His next victory will tie him with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison in fourth. Johnson was winless in 2018, the first time he ran a full Cup season without a victory.

Since winning in his rookie season of 2005, Kyle Busch has never failed to find Victory Lane in the Cup series – a streak of 14 seasons. He’s also had great success in the Xfinity and Truck series. Busch is six total wins away from achieving 200 victories across NASCAR’s top three divisions. Busch has 51 Cup wins, 92 Xfinity wins and 51 Truck wins.

Kevin Harvick is five wins away from joining the exclusive 50-win club that has 13 members. Johnson and Busch are the only active drivers with more than 50 Cup wins.

Hendrick Motorsports looks to extend its streak of consecutive seasons with a Cup win to 34 this year.

Last year Erik Jones and Chase Elliott won, marking three consecutive seasons in which drivers scored career-first victories. That was the longest streak since 2005-2007. The last time at least four consecutive seasons highlighted first-time winners was from 1994-2003.

Top 5s

Jimmie Johnson is seven top fives away from tying Lee Petty for 10th on the all time list with 231.

Kevin Harvick is nine away from achieving 200 top fives.

Top 10s

With four top 10s, Clint Bowyer will become the 37th driver to crack the 200 mark.

Kurt Busch is 20 away from achieving 300 top 10s, which will make him the 21st driver to do so.

Jimmie Johnson has the most top 10s among active drivers with 352 (11th on the all-time list). With nine top 10s he will tie Terry Labonte in 10th.

Kevin Harvick (336) could become the active driver with the most top 10s if he earns 16 more than Johnson.

Poles

Since winning his first pole in the spring Bristol race of 2010, Joey Logano has earned at least one per year. In 2019, he looks to extend his streak to 10 consecutive seasons. Last year, he earned only one pole at Kansas in the fall.

Chase Elliott has won at least one pole in his first three full-time seasons at the Cup level, but he has never earned more than two in a year.

Career Starts

Kurt Busch has 648 starts, which places him currently 23rd on the list. If he makes all the races in 2019 he will pass Dale Earnhardt Sr. and move to 18th on the list.

Kevin Harvick (646), Ryan Newman (620) and Jimmie Johnson (615) also have more than 600 starts.

Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman each have 612 consecutive starts to start the season, which ties them for ninth on the list. If they make nine more consecutive starts they will catch Mark Martin. With 16 more consecutive starts, they will catch Jeff Burton. If both Johnson and Newman make all of the races in 2019, they will end the season tied for sixth with Dale Earnhardt Sr. (648).

Assuming the following drivers make all of the races, this is when they should reach their respective milestones:

500th

Kyle Busch: Feb. 24th at Atlanta
Martin Truex Jr.: Aug. 11 at Michigan
Denny Hamlin: Oct. 6 at Dover
Clint Bowyer: Oct. 13 at Talladega

300th

Michael McDowell: June 9 at Michigan
Aric Almirola: July 21 at New Hampshire

200th

Austin Dillon: March 31 at Texas
Kyle Larson: June 30 at Chicagoland

100th

Ty Dillon: April 28 at Talladega
Erik Jones: Sept. 1 at Darlington
Daniel Suarez: Sept. 21 at Richmond