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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Kurt Busch fastest in final Cup practice at Sonoma

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Kurt Busch posted the fastest single lap in the final practice for the Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway with a speed of 94.061 mph.

He beat second-place Denny Hamlin (94.012 mph) by .040 seconds.

Martin Truex Jr. (93.718) had the third fastest lap, but the team will have some work to do before Saturday’s qualification. With nine minutes remaining on the clock, he ran into the back of Bubba Wallace in the esses and did significant damage to his nose. Wallace landed 34th on the chart with a speed of 91.641 mph.

Jamie McMurray (93.549) and Kevin Harvick (93.441) rounded out the top five.

Harvick (91.468) had the quickest 10-lap average – leading a sweep of the top three by Stewart Haas Racing. Busch was second quickest at 91.452 mph with Clint Bowyer third quick at 91.443 mph.

William Byron broke an axle seal in final practice, but the team was able to get him back on track with 24 minutes remaining in the session. His speed of 92.279 mph was 25th fastest.

Click here for the full report from final practice.

Friday Truck Series practice report from Gateway

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Second practice

Last week’s winner, Brett Moffitt topped the speed chart in Friday evening’s practice session for the Eaton 200 with a speed of 137.191 mph.

He beat second-place Myatt Snider (136.658 mph) by .128 seconds.

Johnny Sauter (136.608), Riley Herbst (136.355), and Ben Rhodes (136.219) round out the top five.

Herbst is making his Truck Series debut this week.

Also making his Truck debut is Zane Smith, who posted a lap of 136.120 mph to land sixth on the chart.

Christian Eckes (135.906) failed to back up his series-leading speed from the first practice session and was only ninth fastest, but he had the quickest 10-lap average of 135.039 mph.

Click here for complete results from practice 2.

First practice

Rain canceled the practice session at Gateway that was scheduled to run from 3:35 – 4:25 p.m. Eastern time.

When they finally got on track, Eckes posted the fastest single lap in the first practice session with a speed of 134.360 mph. He is making his Truck series debut this week.

Eckes’ speed was .009 seconds faster than Noah Gragon (134.324), who landed second on the speed chart.

Rhodes (134.120), Moffitt (133.817) and Matt Crafton (133.706) rounded out the top five.

Rhodes had the quickest 10-lap average of 133.466 mph.

With the first practice canceled at Gateway, NASCAR added a final practice session scheduled for Noon – 1 p.m.

Click here for complete results from practice one.

Denny Hamlin offers advice on how to deal with critics on social media

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Denny Hamlin, who has been fined by NASCAR for comments on Twitter, and was vocal toward critics after this year’s Daytona 500, says he’s found peace on how to deal with those on social media who don’t agree with him.

“I’ve been very good this year about not replying to mean people, and you all should do the same,’’ Hamlin said Friday at Sonoma Raceway.

“I’m making a (request) right now to every driver, every team owner, every NASCAR executive and every media member, stop replying to people who make nonsense comments. They have 16 followers. Don’t give them your 100,000. Do not give them your 100,000 as their stage. No one will ever see their comment, just brush it by, talk about the positives and I’m not a positive person.”

Asked how does one ignore such divisive comments, Hamlin said: “You just scroll by it. Forget it. That person doesn’t exit. They’re an admirer that has lost their way.’’

Hamlin has been better at doing so since the Daytona 500. He faced negative reaction on social media to the contact he and Bubba Wallace had at the end of the Daytona 500.

They engaged in a brief shouting match in the garage area after Hamlin learned that Wallace had taken a dig at him on national TV about a recent comment about drivers using Adderall.

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Clint Bowyer leads opening Cup practice at Sonoma

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Clint Bowyer was the fastest in the first of two Cup practices Friday at Sonoma Raceway.

Bowyer, the winner of the most recent Cup race two weeks ago at Michigan, posted a lap of 93.590 mph. He was followed by Ryan Blaney (93.546 mph), Joey Logano (93.172), Jamie McMurray (93.049) and Daniel Suarez (92.746).

Sixth was Jimmie Johnson (92.661). He was followed by Michael McDowell (92.650), Martin Truex Jr. (92.614), AJ Allmendinger (92.596) and Ryan Newman (92.595).

Click here for full practice report

Final Cup practice will be from 5:40 – 6:55 p.m. ET. Qualifying will take place Saturday.

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