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Xfinity Series spotlight: Blake Koch

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Growing up in West Palm Beach, Florida, Blake Koch was more interested in attempting a career in Motocross and Supercross than NASCAR.

Enter his stepfather, Tim Kirkland.

“He was a big NASCAR fan the whole time I was growing up, and they used to watch the races and when I was about … 19, 20 years old he had the opportunity to buy a racecar in Florida, just a local Saturday night short track truck,” Koch told NBC Sports. “He bought it, and asked me if I wanted to drive it, and I said sure, and I tried driving a racecar for the first time in my life when I was 20 and absolutely fell in love with it.”

Calling it the coolest thing he has ever done, Koch quickly fell in love with the speed and adrenaline rush. He was enamored with the team aspect of the sport, which sees a group working on the car together, going racing, and then trying to improve on it before the next event.

“I won my first race probably my fifth race ever and had some people say I could really make something of this, and I took that to heart and pursued becoming a NASCAR driver,” Koch said.

His career started in the Richard Childress Racing development driver program where Koch competed in the K&N Pro Series West in 2009. He has been full-time in the Xfinity Series since 2011, the same year he moved to North Carolina.

This year, Koch is driving for Kaulig Racing, a new team started by LeafFliter Gutter Protection President and owner Matt Kaulig. LeafFliter is also the sponsor on the No. 11 Chevrolet and Kaulig is the man Koch credits for turning his career around.

The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.

NBC Sports: How would you explain who Blake Koch is if you were meeting new fans?

Koch: I would say Blake Koch is all about family, about being a godly husband, a godly father. I work very, very hard to be the best father I can possibly be, the best husband I could possibly be but also the fastest racecar driver I could possibly be. I have the reputation of being one of the nicest guys in the garage, but you can’t mistake my niceness for weakness because when I’m on the track, and it’s time to go, I get pretty intense. I want nothing more than to win these races more than anybody. So, I would say a lot of people don’t know how much I do care about my marriage and my parenting and stuff like that. That definitely comes first, but I also get to drive racecars, which is the coolest thing ever.

NBC Sports: What do you enjoy doing away from the racetrack?

Koch: I like to do some hunting in the offseason and also stay in shape. Eat well, work out, do the MMA training, that’s been really helping me over a year now just to stay in great shape and stay confident in myself. It’s just a very cool sport, and I’m big into watching the UFC fights.

NBC Sports: What do you remember about your first NASCAR race?

Koch: My first K&N race I was so nervous I couldn’t even breathe. I got on the racetrack and went out for qualifying and it was my first time being on television – it was covered by SPEED at the time – and I qualified fourth, and that really was just huge for me at the time. Got that out of my system and ever since then I think I probably get equally as nervous every week for qualifying. Not because of the pressure or the TV but because I want to do well for my team, all my guys that work so hard, and my sponsors. So that nervousness has not gone away at all. The other thing I remember about my first Xfinity start was that the team was telling me don’t crash, whatever you do don’t crash, we just have to finish this race. I went out for practice at Memphis and first lap I went through Turn 3 and 4 coming to the green, and I was dead sideways about to crash. I was looking at pit road entrance, and I saved it somehow and didn’t crash, but I’ll never forget that feeling.

NBC Sports: You have been very open about your faith, but is it correct you lost a sponsorship early in your career because of that?

Koch: I’m very outspoken about my faith, it’s something that I’m not willing to hide. There was this campaign within politics, and somebody didn’t like that I was a Christian and pushing voting. They couldn’t activate, and they wanted to activate, and the sponsor pulled out and that was a life-changing situation for me. My wife was three months pregnant, we just bought a house, and I lost my job. So you really go through some trials, and that was one of the biggest trials in life, figuring out what I was going to do at that point, and I decided to keep pursuing racing. I started doing whatever I had to do to pay the bills. I was driving my friend’s motorhome to the racetrack; I was spotting in the Cup Series; I was start and parking a truck, Xfinity car, whatever I had to do to stay at the track that weekend. Man, it was really a struggle in my career until October 2014 when I got to drive that Sprint Cup (car) for Go Fas Racing with LeafFliter sponsorship. I got to meet Matt Kaulig with LeafFliter, and those guys had a great time; developed that relationship and Matt Kaulig has turned my career around.

NBC Sports: When and why were you moved to dedicated your life to your faith?

Koch: When I was 12 years old I went to youth group camp in Tampa, Florida, and it was really my first time going to an event with the intentions of telling you about Jesus. When I went there, and I heard all the pastors talking just about how that worked and how that looked, it was definitely something I wanted to be a part of. So when I was 12 years old, I made that commitment to become a Christian. Why I became a Christian is because God created this Earth, he sent his son down to die on the cross for our sins and to get to heaven all you have to do is believe in Jesus Christ and believe he died on the cross for our sins, and that’s what I believe. It just totally makes sense to me, and I would never even think of something other than that to live by.

NBC Sports: Statistically you are having your best season in the Xfinity Series, what is going right at Kaulig Racing?

Koch: Matt (Kaulig) has shown his dedicated to the sport by just being fully invested. We own our race shop; we’re not leasing it, and he just came in all in and wants to make it happen and go fast. I know before this year I had like two top-15 finishes ever out of over 100 starts and this year I think I have over 10 top-15 finishes in the first 21 races and two top 10s, the first of my career. Our average qualifying effort right now is like 14th or something, and that’s pretty impressive to have an average of a 14thplace qualifying effort, that means we’re competing for that third round every single week, and that’s something to be proud of. When you go to the racetrack every week, and you have goals to be in the top 10 those are realistic goals, but it’s going to take some time for us to be a consistent top-10 car because you have to beat some of those major, major Cup teams that have been in business for a long time. The advantage they have over us isn’t really anything but just time. A lot of the same people have been working together for a long time, they have the driver/crew chief chemistry, which me and Chris (Rice) are getting better at every week, so I think with some time and a couple years down the road you’ll see us competing for a championship because we also have that alliance with RCR that gives us the opportunity to have all the resources we need to keep going fast.

NBC Sport: Who do you compare Kaulig Racing to in the Sprint Cup Series?

Koch: You know how Furniture Row is in the Cup Series – they’ve always been considered an underdog team, but they have a lot of resources, they have a lot of money, and they have a great alliance, and I think that’s the kind of race team that we will be in the Xfinity Series. I don’t think you’ll see us in the Cup Series; I think you’ll see us here in Xfinity for a long time, and we want to be that team that comes out of nowhere, but we have all the resources, and we have all the relationships to go out there to compete for wins. So I think you’ll see us as kind of the Furniture Row of the Xfinity Series.

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Chase Elliott, AJ Allmendinger unveil Darlington throwback schemes

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Both Chase Elliott and AJ Allmendinger have revealed the paint schemes they’ll drive in the Sept. 3 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Elliott will use his No. 24 Chevrolet to pay tribute to the car his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, drove in his first Cup start.

The light blue look was on his No. 9 car when he started in the Feb. 29, 1976 race at Rockingham Speedway.

The car was revealed on Facebook in the below video.

AJ Allmendinger will pay tribute to two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte with his No. 47 Chevrolet.

The car will resemble the No. 44 Piedmont Airlines Oldsmobile that Labonte drove in during the 198 Cup season when he competed for owner Billy Hagan.

NASCAR America: Felix Sabates: ‘I’m lucky to be here’ after near-death experience from illness last year

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For nearly a month last year Felix Sabates was at death’s door.

The fears were so great that Sabates might not wake up from a coma he spent 29 days in, Chip Ganassi bought a blue suit for the possibility he might have to attend his co-owner’s funeral.

But the 71-year-old made a full recovery through a rehab process that included learning to walk again.

NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty and Sabates have a special relationship. Petty drove the No. 42 car for Sabates’ SABCO Racing for eight years in the 1980s and 1990s, winning six of his eight Cup races for the millionaire owner from Cuba.

Sabates sat down with Petty to discuss the ordeal, which began in January 2016 when Sabates began feeling ill during the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I came home and woke up the next morning and I (couldn’t) breath,” said Sabates, who drove himself to the hospital. “The minute they saw me I was in intensive care.”

Sabates was in the hospital for two and half weeks before he was released, but Sabates “should’ve know I wasn’t cured.”

The Chip Ganassi Racing co-owner returned to his usual grind until it caught up to him in August.

“My blood pressure was through the roof, my oxygen level was 55, which you should be dead then,” recalled Sabates, who has no memory of a three-month stretch. “They thought was I was brain-dead. They were pretty much going to disconnect me. So 4 o’clock in the morning, they took my tubes out.”

That’s when Sabates began the process of waking up.

“I’m lucky to be here,” said Sabates, who aside from being back at the track is also back to playing golf.

“I used to worry about little things,’ Sabates said. “Now I don’t even worry about big things.”

The full feature will air Sunday on Countdown to Green, which begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN before the Cup race at Pocono.

NASCAR America: Ryan Blaney glad Team Penske news is finally out in the open

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On Wednesday it was finally announced that Ryan Blaney would move from Wood Brothers Racing to Team Penske full-time next year in the Cup Series in the No. 12 Ford while Paul Menard will take over the No. 21 Ford.

NASCAR America’s Dave Burns caught up with Blaney on Thursday. Blaney was happy that his 2018 plans were finally public knowledge.

Blaney also acknowledged how a technical alliance between the two teams helped Wood Brothers Racing return to a competition level that allowed Blaney to get his first Cup win this season earlier this year.

“That was a big deal,” Blaney said. “That was getting us to where we could run a full-time season. That was really helpful not only to me but to (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins, will be coming with me to the 12 car.”

Blaney has been driving for Team Penske part-time in the Xfinity Series since 2012.

“It’s been nice to get the news and tell everybody finally about what we’re doing,” Blaney said. “But mainly we’re trying to finish this year out strong with the Wood Brothers, getting their 100th win, that’s really big. That’s on my bucket list for this year and getting as far as we can in the playoffs.”

The No. 21 team returns to Pocono Raceway this weekend, the site of Blaney’s first Cup win last month.

Watch the video for the full interview.

Numbers add up for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Pocono

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Just six races remain for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make the playoffs in his final NASCAR Cup season.

Earnhardt is ranked 22nd in the NASCAR Cup standings and there are only four open positions — that could shrink further with additional first-time winners in 2017 in the next six races — left for winless drivers to qualify for the 16-driver playoffs strictly on points.

As a result, Earnhardt and his fans know that with each passing race where the No. 88 remains winless, the urgency to win even just one race to make the 10-race playoffs increases exponentially.

Junior’s fans may be heartened to hear some positive tidbits about his chances this weekend at Pocono Raceway, courtesy of RacingInsights.com.

  • Did you know that during Junior’s nine-plus year tenure with Hendrick Motorsports, he’s earned the most top-fives at Daytona (seven in 20 starts) and … this may come as a surprise … at Pocono (seven in 18 starts).
  • Earnhardt also has six top fives both at Martinsville and Michigan (18 starts each), and five top fives at Phoenix and Talladega (also 18 starts each).
  • Of Hendrick Motorsports’ last 10 wins, Jimmie Johnson has won eight, Kasey Kahne won last Sunday’s Brickyard 400 and Earnhardt’s most recent Cup win came on Nov. 15, 2015 at Phoenix Raceway.
  • Earnhardt has gone 39 races since his last win.
  • Earnhardt won both races at Pocono in 2014. In the four races he’s been in since then, he’s finished fourth (mid-summer 2015) second (early 2016 race) — meaning he’s had four top-five finishes in his last six starts at the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
  • He also was 11th in the early 2015 race there. His only finish lower than 11th came last month at Pocono when he completed just 58 of the scheduled 160 laps before his motor expired.
  • In 34 career Cup starts at the Tricky Triangle, Earnhardt has two wins, 11 top fives, 15 top 10s and one pole.
  • Earnhardt is ranked sixth for most laps led by winless drivers this season, with 24 laps led. By comparison, Kyle Busch has led 1,040 laps, the most of all winless drivers in 2017.

Add all those elements together and could Junior’s best chance up to now to win and lock in a playoff berth come this Sunday?

We’ll soon find out.

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