Ryan Blaney embracing underdog status in first playoff run

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Even though his first shot at a NASCAR Cup title will come against drivers he grew up admiring, Ryan Blaney believes that won’t phase him in his first Cup playoff appearance.

“I don’t really get intimidated,” Blaney said Wednesday at the NASCAR Cup playoff media day in Charlotte. “These drivers are people just like us. I’ve watched them when I was younger. I’ve watched a lot of them. I’ve been big fans of a lot of them when I was younger growing up in this sport, and I just think it’s really neat.”

The 23-year-old driver for Wood Brothers Racing didn’t fully appreciate his inclusion in the playoffs until last Saturday.

After finishing 18th at Richmond, Blaney was presented as one of the 16 drivers who would compete in the playoffs, thanks to his win at Pocono Raceway in June.

“That part was very neat after Richmond to stand up there with 15 other drivers and get your picture taken with the trophy and realize, ‘Hey, I deserve to be here too,'” Blaney said. “Our team deserves this opportunity and this chance to be here. That was very special for me.

“I’ve wanted to be a part of that ever since they started that and I saw it as a kid. It was neat to be up there with some people you looked up to as a kid, as well as some of the younger drivers that you’re competing against.”

Blaney doesn’t enter the playoffs with a full head of steam. In the 12 races since his Pocono victory, the first of his Cup career, Blaney has four top 10s, but no finish better than eighth. That stretch includes two DNFs at Daytona and Indianapolis.

Blaney, pursuing the first NASCAR championship for the Wood Brothers since 1963, acknowledges the team got caught looking ahead to Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway and the following nine races.

“These playoff cars are always getting built and our Chicago car has been in the works for a long time,” Blaney said. “They’re constantly changing, whether it’s setup stuff or body or modifications they find throughout the week. We’re changing stuff today, just last-minute things that the aero group finds or the engineers find that we think will be better.”

The driver of the No. 21 Ford – who will be joining Team Penske next year –  knows he and the rest of the field will likely be chasing Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch in pursuit of the title.

“Hopefully, we can get some of that performance to where we can compete with those guys every single lap,” Blaney said. “I know the last couple months we haven’t had the best of runs, and that’s really not a lot of car performance, but things not happening our way or taking more chances than we probably should after we got a win at Pocono just because we could do that and take more chances of trying to win races or stages and them not playing out for us.

“It’s hard to kind of see where you stack up before Chicago. Even Darlington, the last mile-and-a-half, it’s hard to really even see where you line up there because it’s such a unique race track and Richmond is hard to kind of tell.”

Blaney joins Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in being in the playoffs for the first time. Both of them and Austin Dillon got into the playoffs with their first Cup wins.

Though he has fewer wins this season than the Truex’s and Larson’s of the series, Blaney said he doesn’t mind being called “an underdog or dark horse.”

“That means if you exceed expectations you kind of know that it’s even that much cooler and better when you can do that,” Blaney said. “I don’t mind being called that, but I do think we are viewed as that.”

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Truck practice report at Atlanta

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Justin Haley was the fastest in the first of two practices Friday for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He had a top lap of 178.029 mph.

Daytona winner Johnny Sauter was second with a lap of 177.040 mph. He was followed by Myatt Snider (177.040 mph), Stewart Friesen (176.995) and Noah Gragson (176.589).

There were no incidents in the session.

Final Truck practice will be from 4:05 – 4:50 p.m. ET.

Click here for Truck 1 practice

Police investigating vandalism, theft at North Wilkesboro Speedway

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The Wilkes County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a report of vandalism and theft at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, the track, which last hosted a NASCAR Cup race in 1996, suffered damage of about $10,000 when several trespassers were on the grounds last weekend. No arrests have been made.

The report states that several windows were broken and other damage was done to the structures. Also, large amounts of electrical wire and circuit breakers were reported missing.

The investigation continues.

North Wilkesboro Speedway hosted NASCAR Cup races from 1949-96. Winners included Fireball Roberts, Buck Baker, Junior Johnson, Lee Petty, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon, who won the final race there.

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Others’ predictions motivating Austin Dillon after Daytona 500 win: ‘I guess they don’t believe it yet’

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HAMPTON, Ga. – Fresh off the greatest victory of his NASCAR career, Austin Dillon already has motivation to win the next.

The Richard Childress Racing driver heard others predict this week that the Daytona 500 would be his only victory this season.

“I think on Race Hub, Brad (Keselowski) and Chad (Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson) saying that we weren’t going to win again,” Dillon said Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “So, that was good to hear. That was something to get me fired up a little bit more and our team, get those competitive juices flowing again. So, we will just keep rocking it however we can. We still have a lot to work on.”

Prior to Daytona, Dillon’s lone win in four seasons as a full-time Cup driver came in the 2017 Coca-Cola 600. His No. 3 Chevrolet qualified for the playoffs the past two seasons, but his top 10s (13 to four) and average finish (15.9 to 18.6) slipped demonstrably from 2016 to ’17.

“So yesterday in my group text with my buddies they watched Chad Knaus and Brad Keselowski, and it was like, ‘All right, it’s time to keep knocking them down, I guess they don’t believe it yet,’” Dillon said. “We’ve got to step up though at RCR. We’ve still got a lot to prove. It’s a speedway race, even though it’s the biggest race in our deal, it’s a speedway race.  We’ve got a lot more to prove.

“(Competition executive) Andy Petree and all the guys are RCR are working hard. I think coming down to a two-car team move is big for us. We’ve got to take advantage of that. I’m not going to lie, I’m tired right now, but we are going to kick butt this weekend and get back regrouped and get in the groove and try and gain as many bonus points as we can.”

But qualifying for the playoffs by winning the season opener should be a morale booster that avoids any letdown.

“The one thing they don’t have right now that we have is a win,” Dillon said. “So, we are on top right now, and no matter what they can’t take that away, and we are going to keep working.  I don’t expect us to lay down at all. I feel like now more than ever we need to go head on and go after it.”

Xfinity practice report from Atlanta

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Christopher Bell posted the fastest lap in the first of two Xfinity practice sessions Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Bell posted a lap of 178.447 mph. He was followed by Joey Logano (177.323 mph), Cole Custer (175.933), Ryan Reed (175.688) and Kevin Harvick (175.487). Daytona winner Tyler Reddick (175.388) was sixth on the speed chart.

There were no incidents in the session.

Final Xfinity practice will be from 3:05 – 3:55 p.m. ET

Click here for practice 1 report