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Richard Petty Motorsports following the footsteps of Furniture Row

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WELCOME, N.C. – All of the noise at Richard Petty Motorsports’ cozy new home on a recent Friday afternoon was coming from behind a short wall in the corner.

Several No. 43 cars were parked on the shop floor in various states of inactivity and incompletion, but the “Fusion” on the front bumper betrayed they were last year’s models.

Drew Blickensderfer, RPM’s crew chief, didn’t seem concerned as he cast a smile toward the source of the noise – a specialized fabrication department that could be the key to solving a championship-tested equation.

Less space and fewer people can equal better results.

“We have shrank quite a bit,” Blickensderfer said. “Right now, we’re bare bones, but we have the people we need to go racing and performance-wise to go racing.

“To grow into a Furniture Row, or a model similar to that, we need to get that (fabrication department) up and running.”

As RPM makes significant structural changes – switching to Chevrolet, aligning with Richard Childress Racing, shuttering its body-hanging staff – no one is expecting a quantum leap in performance for a team that finished 24th in the 2017 owner standings.

But an improvement to a top-20 car with long-term winning potential is expected, and the model is the reigning team in NASCAR’s premier series.

In winning the 2017 title with Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota, Furniture Row Racing has excelled by taking Joe Gibbs Racing chassis and optimizing the accompanying suspension parts and pieces through precision engineering and manufacturing.

RPM hopes to mirror the process through its reorganized fab department, which will have the same equipment from its previous home but with a more laser-targeted focus.

“If we can get that up and running, we’d be better off in the long run,” Blickensderfer said. “And that’s the ultimate goal is to be able to take a car from Richard Childress Racing and develop and work on it and ultimately have a better product for Sunday.”

RPM has traversed various paths toward competitiveness in recent seasons.

In 2014, the team was receiving chassis from Roush Fenway Racing but hanging its own bodies when it made the playoffs with Aric Almirola via a win at Daytona International Speedway. In 2015, RPM added chassis building to its workload but stumbled. Last year, it returned to hanging bodies on chassis supplied by Roush Fenway.

This year, RPM relocated from a 65,000-square-foot shop in Mooresville to a 20,000-square-foot space adjacent to RCR, which will deliver cars from its base just down the hill.

On arrival at RPM, all that is needed is interior (such as driver’s seat, steering wheel and column, air boxes and gear coolers) and mechanical work.

“Basically, it comes as a shell, the chassis with a body on it,” Blickensderfer said. “We do the wiring, the plumbing, the suspension parts, front and rear. Basically, all the parts you would bolt on.”

The change has allowed RPM to run leaner because there’s less work to be done on bodies. After employing about 80 last year (with 60 working on cars), RPM will have about 40 employees in 2018 with roughly 25 working on cars (about a half-dozen of those crew members will stay in the shop for assembly while the team is on the road, and RCR will supply the team’s pit crew).

The staff reduction will allow RPM to reallocate some funding toward R&D (after making zero trips to a wind tunnel last year).

Blickensderfer said the alliance with RCR should provide an aerodynamic foundation that will allow fine-tuning to have a greater impact. Last year, RPM “did a really good job of putting stuff that drove well under our race cars” but still faced the aerodynamic limitations of the Roush chassis.

“The thing that really creates speed on cars is the body and aero,” Blickensderfer said. “You can have the wrong springs in your car and mess up the other stuff a little bit, and you’d still be fast, at least in portions of the race. If you get all the springs right, and your aero is terrible, you still might be only a 20th-place car. That’s just the reality of it. The thing that is the most expensive to develop, create and implement is the aero stuff.

“So that’s why the big teams, they have all the wind tunnel data, and you’re racing against teams that are just developing faster than you can even produce cars. That’s why you’ve got to jump on board with them to get some of their information, or you’re going to be watching them coming behind you ready to lap you.”

With consolidation among chassis and engine builders an overarching trend in NASCAR for the past decade, alliances have become more prevalent. Besides RPM, Germain Racing and JTG Daugherty also have similar arrangements.

But few have made it work as well as Furniture Row, which made the championship round in 2015 through an RCR alliance before switching to JGR and Toyota the next season. Relying on the setups and strategies of crew chief Cole Pearn, Truex consistently outran JGR’s fleet of four Camrys in 2017 with a series-high eight victories and 19 stage wins – despite a few hundred fewer employees working at its Denver location.

“You step back and say, ‘How come no one else has been successful in that model?’ and you look at what Furniture Row has done with their model,” Blickensderfer said. “They still do some stuff in-house. So we pay RCR for an engineering agreement and to get cars from them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t develop ourselves. So you’d only be better off if you get extra money, you can start developing things yourself.

“Get all (the alliance team’s) information. Dump yours on top of it. You can’t help but get better in the long run that way. That’s what Cole and those guys have done. That’s the model that I would think the JTGs, the RPMs, the Germains, companies of this size, that’s what we need to strive to do is use that model to build up into that next level of race team.”

Though RPM will benefit from RCR’s aerodynamic R&D and assembly line capability, some of the information will be transferred the other way, too.

“They’re incorporating some of the stuff we had in our race cars into theirs that they think is going to make them better,” Blickensderfer said. “Before they put the body on it, we can change the brake system and do what we want, which eventually they’re going to do. And that saves us both time to make sure we have the best product.”

RPM took delivery of its first Camaro late last week for the Jan. 31-Feb. 1 test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Its hauler will be on the road Jan. 26 to Nevada, leaving about a week to finish preparing and setting up the car.

“That’s not all that tight of a timeframe,” Blickensderfer said. “What will happen in the future when we start racing is we’ll get a car two to three weeks before the event, and when we come in on a Monday morning after an event, the next week’s car is on the setup plate ready to go, so there’s only about a day’s worth of work we have to do to it.”

RPM has put its surface plates and other tools in cold storage, keeping open the option to revert to hanging bodies. But with the sponsorship landscape scarce, it makes such autonomy more difficult.

“If you could do everything yourself, you’d be better off, because then nobody gets your information,” Blickensderfer said. “But if (RCR) can take the money they’re developing cars with, and we can take the money we’re getting to develop cars and combine it, I think we all end up better. When there is less money in the pot to grab, the more of us that can throw the money in, the better we’ll be.”

Long: A sigh of relief punctuates the end of Daytona Speedweeks

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When it was over, when a Daytona Speedweeks that featured outrage and exhilaration saw its final checkered flag, there was little euphoria, many anxious moments and eventually a sigh of relief.

Confusion and concern reigned on pit road after Ryan Newman’s horrific crash at the end of Monday night’s Daytona 500. Racing for the win, Newman’s car slammed into the wall before the start/finish line, was struck while upside down by Corey LaJoie’s car and slid down the track, a shower of sparks trailing, before coming to rest beyond the exit of pit road.

A conversation on one team’s radio said Newman was out of the car, but others on pit road said he was not. With drivers and teams parked closer to pit entrance after the race, no one could tell what was happening at the other end of pit road.

Safety crews needed more than 10 minutes to roll Newman’s car over, attend to him and cut the crumpled roof off to extricate the 42-year-old father of two.

Moments earlier, Ryan Blaney pushed Newman past Denny Hamlin into the lead on the backstretch of the final lap. Blaney attempted to pass on the frontstretch, but Newman blocked. Blaney realized he was going to finish second and wanted to ensure a Ford won, so he pushed Newman. But one bump unsettled Newman’s car, triggering the incident.

Afterward, Blaney stood with his crew by his car on pit road for several minutes but little was said. They waited to hear about Newman’s condition. As many did.

When he talked to the media, Blaney’s face was ashen and his eyes blank as he recounted a last lap he’d like to forget but likely never will.

“I hope he’s alright,” Blaney said. “That looked really bad. Definitely unintentional. … Just waiting to see if he’s OK.”

As he spoke, an ambulance sped past, taking Newman to Halifax Health Medical Center.

Until the end of the Daytona 500, Speedweeks had provided its fill of drama, intrigue and bliss.

It started with the Busch Clash the week before where all 18 cars were involved in an at least one accident and winner Erik Jones was collected in three incidents. The main story that day, though, was Brad Keselowski’s  anger toward teammate Joey Logano for an accident that collected both and Kyle Busch.

A few days later the focus returned to racing. Logano won his qualifying race and William Byron won his qualifying race, his first Cup victory at Daytona. But Daniel Suarez suffered heartbreak when he was involved in a crash and failed to qualify for the 500.

The following night saw Jordan Anderson finish second by one-hundredth of a second, but he celebrated as if he won. The 28-year-old has raced in the Truck series most of the past five years but it hasn’t been easy. He has often pulled his truck in a dually and struggled to find funding. He sold equipment to help keep his team going in the offseason and purchase the truck he ran at Daytona.

After finishing second, Anderson couldn’t stop smiling.

“This finish tonight … is for every underdog in America, every kid that stays up late and works on his dirt late model or legends car and dreams of coming to Daytona,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, this finish tonight encourages them to never give up on their dreams.”

Less than 24 hours later, Noah Gragson was burning up the track. Literally.

Gragson celebrated his first Xfinity win with an extended burnout that had some rubber burning on the track.

“I caught the track on fire,” the 21-year-old driver for JR Motorsports said. “I thought that always would be really, really cool to catch the track on fire from doing a burnout, and I was able to do that.”

A Sunday filled with sunshine started with Air Force One delivering President Donald J. Trump. He spoke briefly to fans. They serenaded him with chants of “U-S-A!” He gave the command to start engines and his motorcade led the field on a pace lap, something never before done in a race. But rain delayed the start and the electricity that had built faded when the field only got 20 laps in before a second rain delay postponed the race to Monday.

Sunday’s energy grew through a late Monday afternoon under sunny and warm conditions. Crashes reduced the field but still left enough cars to create a dramatic win for Hamlin.

But that was overshadowed by Newman’s wreck.

And all the waiting.

Fans left the track without knowing Newman’s condition. Those at the track stood around. Nobody knew.

Informed of the severity of Newman’s crash, Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing muted their victory lane activities. A somber atmosphere hung over the track.

It was a stark reminder of how dangerous racing can be, something many have overlooked as they’ve applauded countless drivers who emerged with no serious injuries from high-flying cars that tumbled and rolled. It also showed how far safety has come in NASCAR since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in 2001.

Two hours after Newman’s ambulance ride, the news came.

He was alive.

And a sigh of relief filled a silent racetrack.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. defends celebration by Denny Hamlin, No. 11 team

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NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. defended Denny Hamlin and his team’s celebration after winning Monday’s Daytona 500 as safety crews attended to Ryan Newman after Newman’s last-lap accident.

Hamlin and said he didn’t know the severity of Newman’s accident immediately. Car owner Joe Gibbs said the team muted their festivities in victory lane after they found out more about Newman’s situation.  

“I say to everybody out there, some people may have saw us and said, well, these guys are celebrating when there’s a serious issue going on,” Gibbs said. “I apologize to everybody, but we really didn’t know.”

Earnhardt, speaking on Tuesday’s NASCAR America, said he understood what Hamlin and his team were going through. He spoke on the 19th anniversary of his father’s fatal crash in the last lap of the Daytona 500.

“That was just so unfortunate the fallout from that,” Earnhardt said of criticism directed toward the No. 11 team for its celebrating. “I think back to 2001 when dad had his accident and Michael Waltrip had made it all the way to victory lane himself and celebrating what he feels like was the most incredible moment of his life and waiting on dad to walk right into that victory lane at any moment to celebrate with him.

“I think I can tell you … how that process can happen, how what happened with Denny and his team can easily happen. There’s a lot of other similar situations that are much like that to compare that to that make it understandable to what played out with Denny and his team.”

Roush Fenway Racing announced Monday night that Newman was in serious condition with injuries not considered life threatening. The team announced Tuesday that Newman was awake and speaking with family members and doctors. He remains at Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Florida.

“I just can’t stop thinking about Ryan and waiting on more news and more information and when we can see him, when can we physically talk to Ryan and put our own eyes on him and get a chance to see how he’s doing,” Earnhardt said on NASCAR America.

Earnhardt won two Daytona 500s among the 10 points races he won at Daytona and Talladega. He was asked on the show about how aggressive a driver has to be to win the Daytona 500.

“I always had the most success by always trying to lead the race and it’s not physically possible to lead every single lap … I felt like that was the best defense to being involved in an accident, to being caught up in something in the middle of the pack,” Earnhardt said.

“I tried every different way to run those plate races. For me, that was always the most effective approach. It starts when you show up to the racetrack. You’ve got to be that way in practice. You’ve got to go out there, and you might tick some people off in practice that you’re so aggressive, but you’ve got to show them this is how I’m going to race. On top of that, this is what my car can do, so when the green flag drops you see my car pull out, you have confidence to follow it because you’ve seen what it can do all weekend.

“When I approached the entire race that way and the weekend that way, I really, really had a lot of success with it. Sometimes it doesn’t always work and then you start thinking maybe I’ll take a different route, maybe I’m going to sit in the back and try to take care of myself and maybe work my way up through there late in the race. You start trying different things and maybe you think you need to rethink your entire strategy, but I was always coming back around to being aggressive and having a lot of success with that.

“The only problem with that is it’s hard to do. It’s hard to push yourself to work that hard every foot of the racetrack, every straightaway, every turn, every opportunity, every run the car gets, every opportunity presented to do something with that car, it’s hard to stay on the wheel the entire race because everybody at some point has to take a break, some sort of mental break. I think the ones that can sustain that sort of tenacity and fierce competitiveness has success there.

“You see the same guys up toward the front of those races year after year. I even said it before the end of the race, Denny Hamlin, if he’s not the winner, he’s in the picture when they cross the finish line at a lot of these races at Daytona and Talladega. He proved it again that he’s one of the best. I didn’t know whether he had lost the race or not down the backstraightaway. Somehow or another he never gave up.

“If he wasn’t going to win, he was pushing somebody to the win and he put himself back in the situation of where he ends up getting the checkered flag. That attitude of never quitting, never giving up, working to try to get to the front every single inch of the racetrack is, I think, similar to Denny and what makes him so good.”

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Las Vegas

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No driver is listed for Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 Ford on NASCAR’s preliminary entry list for Sunday’s Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The car is normally driven by Ryan Newman, who is in serious condition with non-life threatening injuries after his last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 Monday night. Roush Fenway Racing announced Tuesday afternoon that Newman was awake and speaking with family and doctors.

If Newman does not participate in the race, it would be the first Cup event he’s missed since the start of his full-time career in 2002 (649 starts).

There are 38 entries for Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox).

Garrett Smithley is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Ford for his first race of the year.

Reed Sorenson is entered in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet.

Joey Logano won this race last year over Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Martin Truex Jr. won the playoff race over Kevin Harvick and Keselowski.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity Series – Boyd Gaming 300 (4 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

Thirty-six cars are entered.

Truck Series driver Brett Moffitt is entered in Our Motorsports’ No. 02 Chevrolet.

Daniel Hemric will make his first start of the year in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Timmy Hill is entered in Hattori Racing Enterprises’ No. 61 Toyota.

Kyle Busch won this race last year over John Hunter Nemechek and Noah Gragson. Tyler Reddick won the playoff race over Christopher Bell and Brandon Jones.

Click here for the entry list.

Truck Series – Strat 200 (9 p.m. ET Friday on FS1)

There are 35 trucks entered.

With a full field limited to 32 trucks, three will not make the race.

Kyle Busch is entered in the No. 51 Toyota for his first of five scheduled Truck Series races this year.

Ross Chastain is entered in Niece Motorsports’ No. 40 Toyota.

Busch won this race last year over Moffitt and Matt Crafton. Busch went on to sweep all five of his series starts last season. Austin Hill won the playoff race over Chastain and Christian Eckes.

Click here for the entry list.

 

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Latest on Ryan Newman, Daytona 500

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NASCAR America will have the latest on Ryan Newman after his crash at the end of Monday’s Daytona 500.

Krista Voda hosts and will be joined by Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Nate Ryan. The show will include reports from Marty Snider in Daytona Beach and Dave Burns from Roush Fenway Racing.

Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also will call in.

Today’s show airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.