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NASCAR storylines to watch as Daytona 500 kicks off 2020 season

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — After one of the shortest offseasons in sports, it’s Daytona 500 time again, and the race kicks off the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Kyle Busch is the defending series champion after winning his second title in November, and the top three Xfinity Series drivers, including 2019 champion Tyler Reddick, have moved up to the premier series.

Oh, and seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is retiring at the end of the year.

There are several storylines to keep track of this season, so here are the top five questions we have going into the first race of the year.

1. Will Jimmie Johnson win a race in his final season?

This will surely be one of the dominant stories of the 2020 season. Johnson’s 19th full-time season will be his last, and despite his 83 wins, the Hendrick Motorsports driver is in the middle of the worst stretch of his career. He hasn’t been to victory lane since 2017, when he won three races, and didn’t make the playoffs in 2019.

WHAT TO EXPECT: Dale Jr., Jeff Gordon and Danica’s advice for Johnson

NEXT UP: Which Hendrick driver fills the void after Johnson retires?

But this is his first full season with crew chief Cliff Daniels, who took over in the middle of last season, and Johnson told NBC Sports at the time he brings “a spark there that I’m not sure we were aware we were missing.”

When USA TODAY Sports asked Johnson on Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway if he would be OK without winning at least one more, he said simply: “I wouldn’t have a choice.”

Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet had some speed during qualifying for the Daytona 500 last Sunday, coming in fourth behind pole winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Hendrick teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott. (However, since he wasn’t in the top two, his spot in the starting lineup won’t be determined until Thursday’s duel races.)

So maybe that’s the first sign of hope for Johnson and his team. Whether you’re a 48 fan or not, it’s hard to deny the poetic finish of Johnson winning at least one more race and qualifying for the playoffs. But we won’t know if his car has lasting and versatile speed for a few more weeks.

2. Will Joe Gibbs Racing continue its ridiculous dominance?

Joe Gibbs Racing opened the 2019 season with Denny Hamlin winning the Daytona 500 and closed it with Kyle Busch winning his second championship, beating out teammates Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., along with Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick. Along with Erik Jones, the JGR drivers combined to win 19 of 36 races last season. But can they keep it up?

“It’s almost impossible,” said Hamlin. “I enjoy the challenge of us going out there. I like our chances any time there are changes, that our organization adapts quicker than anyone.”

Last season was unprecedented for a team’s dominance, so that’s a high bar to clear. However, there’s no reason to think Busch’s and Hamlin’s teams won’t pick up right where they left off. Truex will need to adjust to a new crew chief in James Small, formerly the team’s lead engineer, after the often brilliant Cole Pearn announced his surprise retirement at the end of last year.

And in his third season with the powerhouse team, Jones, who won the Busch Clash exhibition race Sunday, looks poised to start pulling his weight with more than one win a season.

3. How will the 2020 Cup Series schedule changes impact the competition?

Homestead-Miami Speedway is in March, Pocono Raceway has two races in two days, Daytona’s summer race is the regular-season finale, Darlington Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway are on the playoff schedule – with Bristol hosting the first elimination race — and Phoenix Raceway is hosting championship weekend in November.

NASCAR spiced up the 36-race schedule a little, drivers dig it and things could get wild, especially in the latter half.

4. Will Silly Season start early?

Almost certainly, and it practically already has with NASCAR’s potential future free agents and their contracts being a popular topic going into the Daytona 500. Several of the sport’s biggest names could end up switching teams at the end of the 2020 season, including Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson, Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney, Hendrick’s Bowman, JGR’s Jones and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Clint Bowyer.

Plus, with Johnson retiring, there’s a guaranteed opening with Hendrick, and a lot of potential for movement should these guys, and more, become free agents.

“There are always rides available, but there are usually limited amounts of very good rides, and this year there are several of them,” Bowyer said Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway.

“We all know that you are only as good as your last race. You can’t go on a swing of bad races or have a bad year or whatever else. You have to be the total package and that is probably more so today’s day in age than ever. You have to be the total package in that race car and out of it as well.”

5. Which driver will win his first race?

I’d bet on William Byron, who’s in his third season with Hendrick Motorsports. He and crew chief Chad Knaus have one year together under their belts, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they make it to victory lane at least once. 

Another option is Matt DiBenedetto, who came close at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2019 before finishing second and is now in his first season in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford.

Or maybe it’s Cole Custer, a rookie who’s taking over the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

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U.N.L.V. Ends San Diego State’s Unbeaten Streak

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SAN DIEGO —Elijah Mitrou-Long scored 19 points, including two free throws with 11.5 seconds left, and U.N.L.V. handed No. 4 San Diego State its first loss of the season, a 66-63 defeat on Saturday, ending the Aztecs’ 26-game winning streak.

San Diego State, which had been the only remaining undefeated men’s team, erased most of a 14-point deficit when it pulled to within 64-63 on Malachi Flynn’s 3-pointer with less than 20 seconds left. Mitrou-Long was fouled by Matt Mitchell with 11.5 seconds left and made both free throws.

Flynn missed a contested 3-pointer with 3.3 seconds left and the ball went to the Runnin’ Rebels (15-14, 10-6 Mountain West Conference). After a long pass down the court, Mitchell ended up with the ball and his desperation shot at the buzzer fell short.

San Diego State (26-1, 15-1) unveiled a banner for winning the regular-season conference championship before the game and then looked nothing like the team that raced to the best start in program history. The Aztecs trailed by 14 midway through the second half and were down 11 with 4:32 remaining.

They were uncharacteristically porous on defense and sloppy on offense, missing easy shots and committing careless turnovers.

San Diego State had been projected as the No. 1 seed in the East Region in the N.C.A.A. tournament by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. Providing the Aztecs do not falter again, the loss could keep the Aztecs in the West as the No. 2 seed. Gonzaga is the projected No. 1 seed in the West, where the regionals will be at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

The Aztecs will drop from their No. 4 spot in the Top 25, which matched the highest ranking in school history. The Top 25 was also shaken by No. 3 Kansas’ 64-61 win over No. 1 Baylor.

U.N.L.V.’s Amauri Hardy scored 17 points, and Bryce Hamilton added 11 points and 10 rebounds.

Flynn scored 24 points, Mitchell had 13 and Jordan Schakel had 10 for San Diego State.

The Aztecs pulled within 62-60 on Flynn’s two free throws with 1:47 left and Arop Aguek’s layup with 25.6 seconds left. Mitrou-Long then made two free throws with 19.9 seconds left for a four-point lead.

Hardy’s jumper gave U.N.L.V. a 44-30 lead three minutes into the second half before San Diego State pulled within seven. But Hardy then made a free throw and a layup to put the Runnin’ Rebels back up by double digits.

U.N.L.V. took advantage of numerous breakdowns by the Aztecs to take a double-digit lead midway through the first half and were up 37-25 at halftime after a steal and dunk by Mitrou-Long.

San Diego State never led after going up 14-13 on a Flynn 3-pointer, and then allowing U.N.L.V. to go on a 10-0 run. Mitrou-Long started it by converting a 4-point play when he hit a 3-pointer and was fouled by Flynn.

The Aztecs’ only points in a four-minute span were two free throws apiece by Mitchell and Flynn. U.N.L.V. kept connecting, though, getting a bank shot by Hamilton and a 3-pointer by Mitrou-Long to take its first double-digit lead, 28-18 with 7:12 before halftime.

San Diego next hosts Colorado State on Tuesday.U.N.L.V. will play Boise State in its home finale on Wednesday.

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New Hockey Folk Hero, David Ayres

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That was quite the story tonight. Carolina could really bond over this game and the result. For Ayers, he has a story for the ages as he gets the victory.

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NCAA tournament bubble watch: Providence, Memphis help cause

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Three weeks away from Selection Sunday means NCAA tournament bubble teams are feeling the pressure to bolster their profiles in hopes of keeping their postseason hopes alive. 

Here’s a look at which teams enhanced and stained their résumés the most in Saturday’s action. 

PROFILE WINNERS

Providence: The Friars (16-12) started the day as one of the “last four in” the projected field of 68. Their 84-72 home victory over Marquette (and Markus Howard’s 38 points) moved them closer to the safety zone. Providence’s NCAA profile is peculiar in the sense that it features four résumé-staining Quadrant 4 losses. However, it also showcases seven Quadrant 1 victories, which is more than any bubble team. 

STATEMENT WIN: Kansas makes case as NCAA tournament’s top No. 1 seed

Memphis: The Tigers (19-8) picked up a much-needed 60-59 win over fellow bubble team Houston. Memphis has regrouped with two consecutive wins after losing three in a row before that. This victory alone over a Houston squad leading the American Athletic standings won’t push coach Penny Hardaway’s team into the projected field of 68 because a NET score in the 60s doesn’t do any favors, but beating Houston counts as a marquee win, which Memphis was desperately lacking on its résumé. 

Arkansas: The Razorbacks (17-10) are currently on the outside looking in as a bubble team that needs to keep winning to have a shot at the NCAAs. So beating SEC foe Missouri 78-68 on Saturday was necessary to keep those hopes alive. Arkansas only has a 4-9 record in league play (the committee doesn’t look at that), but has a top-50 NET score, top 15 non-conference strength of schedule and no Quad 3 or Quad 4 losses on its profile. 

Syracuse: The Orange (15-12) have a way to go to really enter the at-large bid discussion but winning games it should like Saturday against Georgia Tech will only help that cause. Syracuse’s NET score in the 60s isn’t good and neither are just two Quadrant 1 wins on the NCAA portfolio. But if Syracuse can pick up a couple of marquee victories in the final weeks of ACC play, it’s in business to push to the right side of the bubble. 

PROFILE LOSERS 

Purdue: The Boilermakers (14-13) fell 71-63 to Michigan at home in a must-win game to stay in the NCAA tournament hunt. It’s the fourth consecutive loss for Purdue, which now slips further to the wrong side of the bubble with a near-.500 record. The Boilermakers have an appealing NET score of 34 (and the committee has proved in the past how much it harps on this) and no horrible losses to go with four Quadrant 4 wins. But if there aren’t enough wins on the profile, it won’t matter.

Florida: The Gators (17-10) entered the day as a projected No. 11 seed and Saturday’s 65-59 loss to Kentucky won’t change that seed line. But if it gets close on Selection Sunday the loss could matter considering it would’ve given UF a résumé-lifting Quad 1 road win. Florida has a NET score in the 30s an top-15 strength of schedule, but it’s also one bad loss away from drifting to the wrong side of the bubble. 

Rhode Island: The Rams (19-7) fell in overtime to Davidson 77-75 and could potentially see their seeding line dip from No. 10 to a less safe No. 11. Rhode Island has an exceptional NET score in the low 30s but also owns only one Quadrant 1 win on its résumé. Another Quad 2 win over Davidson would have helped offset those profile shortcomings. 

Richmond: The Spiders (20-7) had won five in a row to leapfrog to one of the “last four in” the projected field this February. But mid-majors don’t have much room for error — meaning Saturday’s 75-71 loss to St. Bonaventure will likely shove Richmond out of the field. A NET score in the 40s is decent, but only two Quad 1 wins means the committee will already be harping on one portfolio shortcoming. 

North Carolina State: The Wolf Pack (17-10) came up with a huge win over Duke earlier this week, but couldn’t pull off another Quadrant 1 victory in falling to Florida State 67-61. A NET score in the 50s is the biggest profile flaw right now if the committee conducted a blind resume test. But adding to N.C. State’s five Quad 1 wins would have catapulted the Wolf Pack much further to the safety zone. Expect them to stay at the No. 10 seed line. 

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs (17-10) lost to SEC foe Texas A&M after starting the day as one of the “first four out” on the projected bracket. Expect MSU to slip further to the wrong side of the bubble after this road loss. It’s not a résumé stain, but it is a loss that makes the next few weeks look bleak as far as tournament hopes go. Ben Howland’s team needs to start winning or it’s NIT. 

Oklahoma: The Sooners (16-11) lost to Oklahoma State 83-66 and as a result will take a hit from a projected No. 10 seed to a No. 11 seed — which is much closer to the wrong side of the bubble than fringe teams would prefer. Even though it was a road loss, now this puts OU in a position of needing to enhance its credentials in the final two weeks of the regular season. This team has a NET score in the 40s but is drastically lacking in the Quadrant 1 win department with just one. 

***

NCAA tourney explainer:

  • Quadrant 1 wins: Home games vs. 1-30 NET teams; Neutral-site games vs. 1-50 NET; Away games vs. 1-75 NET
  • Quadrant 2 wins: Home games vs. 31-75 NET; Neutral-site games vs. 51-100 NET; Away games vs. 76-135 NET
  • Quadrant 3 wins, losses: Home games vs. 76-160 NET; Neutral-site games vs. 101-200 NET; Away games vs. 136-240 NET
  • Quadrant 4 wins, losses: Home games vs. 161-plus NET; Neutral-site games vs. 201-plus NET; Away games vs. 241-plus NET

Note:  Mostly all statistical data are used from USA TODAY Sports veteran bracketologist Shelby Mast. WarrenNolan.com and the NCAA’s NET rankings are also a reference point. 

Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.

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