Inside Richard Petty Motorsports: A day filled with highs, lows

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Dustin Long is spending this week with Richard Petty Motorsports to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at all that takes place before a race. Watch for his stories each day through Sunday.

Part 1: Putting together a game plan for Bristol

Part 2: Searching for sponsorship 

Part 3: Bubba Wallace earns respect from fans, crew 

BRISTOL, Tennessee — Bubba Wallace bounced up the four steps to the lounge of his team’s hauler and announced his presence with an expletive.

It wasn’t uttered in anger but exuberance.

“I’m wore out!” the 24-year old Cup rookie said, beads of sweat on his forehead, after Friday’s opening Cup practice at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Bubba Wallace explains the car’s handling to crew chief Drew Blickensderfer after they finished the opening Cup practice Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Photo: Dustin Long)

The intense 15-second laps left Wallace speaking in short bursts as he described the car’s handling to crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, engineer Derek Stamets and director of competition Philippe Lopez.

Wallace’s arms moved up and down and side to side as he talked, showing Blickensderfer how the car reacted on the high-banked half-mile track.

While Wallace’s fastest circuit in the opening practice session ranked 29th of 41 drivers, his times compared favorably the more laps he ran. Another practice remained to fine-tune the Chevrolet Camaro before qualifying for tonight’s Cup race (6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

This gave the team hope. It had been more than four months since Wallace last scored a top-10 finish. Anticipation built in the shop this week as the Cup series returned to Bristol. It was here in April that Wallace drove the same car he’s running this weekend to the front and led six laps — the first laps he’d led in his Cup career. He seemed headed for a top-10 result that day, but a blistered left front tire left him with a 16th-place finish.

A strong result could help the team as it searches for sponsorship and entertains potential suitors tonight. Richard Petty Motorsports seeks sponsorship for half of the remaining 12 races after Bristol. Without those sponsorship dollars, the team is not able to buy all the new parts bigger teams can, have as many people working in the shop or build new cars as often. That impacts performance. 

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and his team unload the No. 43 car Friday morning. Photo: Dustin Long

But at Bristol, a team can run well without all those dollars and with a limited crew. They just have to work harder.

Blickensderfer walks across the track at 7 a.m. Friday to help unload equipment from the team’s hauler before the garage opens at 7:30 a.m. But he spends 15 minutes examining a hub on a left rear wheel of the team’s hauler after Jeffrey Icenhour said a warning light illuminated on his way to the track.

When the garage opens, Blickensderfer and the crew unload the car and push it to pit road, which serves as their garage Friday since Bristol’s infield has no stalls.

While his car goes through inspection, Wallace’s day officially begins at 9:30 a.m. with NASCAR’s mandatory rookie meeting. Wallace is first, arriving five minutes early. Richard Buck, managing director of the Cup Series, notes Wallace’s punctuality. Blake Jones, Ross Chastain, Jesse Little and William Byron soon arrive and the 10-minute meeting begins. Buck details various practice, qualifying and race procedures and notes where the traction compound has been placed on the track in the corners.

Richard Buck, managing director of NASCAR’s Cup Series, leads the rookie meeting, while Kurt Busch waits to speak to the drivers. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Former Cup champion Kurt Busch attends to offer advice. He reminds the rookies “how fast things move here.” He’s talking about what happens on the track but it also describes how the weekend’s ebb-and-flow can suddenly change.

The day’s pace quickens. Opening Cup practice goes from 10:35 – 11:55 a.m. ET. Wallace and his team stop 15 minutes early, a penalty for failing prerace inspection twice last weekend at Michigan.

Not long after the meeting that Wallace bounded into the lounge for, he’s back in the car. Final practice goes from 12:40 – 1:50 p.m.

After making a run in the session, Wallace radios his crew: “Little bit freer in there. We’ll have to guard that for the race.”

He uses the first part of session to run several laps in a row to prepare for the race— just as he and did in the opening session.

After a few adjustments, he returns to the track. Blickensderfer watches from atop the team’s hauler so he can see how Wallace’s car reacts. Lopez watches on a laptop in the hauler, surrounded by multiple TVs hanging on the wall. One shows various camera angles of the track and weather radar, another displays detailed lap time information of any driver they want and plots those laps on a graph, and a third TV shows a view of the cars exiting Turn 2, going down the backstretch and into Turn 3.

Lopez calls the computer program he’s watching on his laptop a cartoon. He can view the animated version of Wallace’s run in real time. Lopez can call up any driver on the track or a previous run by any driver in that session and overlay their lap on the track with Wallace’s to compare. The computer program also shows the throttle trace and brake pressure for each car simultaneously.

This allows Lopez to see where another driver might be accelerating sooner to show Wallace. Lopez matches Wallace’s lap against those of Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., among others, throughout the sessions.

As Lopez watches Wallace’s run on the computer, Wallace’s car suddenly goes through the wall.

What has actually happened is that Wallace scraped the wall but the fender damage was minor.

“I don’t know how we didn’t hit it,” Wallace tells Lopez later.

The incident proves to be a good point to switch to the qualifying setup.

Bubba Wallace’s crew work on his car Friday. (Photo: Dustin Long)

While the crew makes the adjustments, Wallace stands behind his car on pit road and looks toward Turn 1. Richard Petty, in his black jeans and white collared button-down shirt, walks over the pit wall and takes his long stride toward his driver.

Petty puts his arm around Wallace and talks to him. Wallace nods as hears about every other word over the roar of the cars that scream by every few seconds.

When Wallace returns to the car, he is fast. He finishes the final session 12th on the speed chart with a lap of 15.37 seconds (124.792 mph), although not every team made a mock qualifying run in that session. Still, it’s something to feel good about. But work remains, as Wallace, Blickensderfer, Stamets and Lopez again meet in the hauler’s lounge.

“So from run to run, it got tighter,” Wallace says, sitting in a rollaway office chair that he maneuvers to be next to Blickensderfer. “And so trying to carry speed through (Turns) 1 and 2, you’re pushing the limits. And then hit the bump and sh-woof, like it shoves you this way and snaps you loose.”

“Both the second and third laps?” Blickensderfer asks. Yes is Wallace’s response.

“So we can go more on the second adjustment,” Wallace continues. “But I like the way it felt. I didn’t get all that I could out of it, just didn’t expect it to be that good up top for the (fast lap) we ran. (Lopez) said Harvick initiates throttle a little bit more. Just starts a little bit more. I know I can do that. … Just go out there.”

Blickensderfer reads from his notes, saying how after the first run Wallace said they needed to turn better. After adjustments, it didn’t turn any better next time on track.

“So whatever adjustment we did didn’t react or we need to go more. I’d say it’s probably both,” Blickensderfer says.

“What did you do there?” Wallace asks.

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and Bubba Wallace debrief. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“Raise the trackbar up both sides,’’ Blickensderfer says. “That’s what got you to kind of pivot the time before. I’ve got many notes here of your second qualifying run being loose in that now you’re running the top …”

“It doesn’t matter,” Wallace says, finishing the sentence.

Wallace then discusses entering pit road and the brakes, noting how rough it is when he applies them, telling Blickensderfer that it makes a ffttt-ffttt-ffttt-ffttt-ffttt sound.

Wallace also asks Stamets and Blickensderfer to “give me something” to help his car over the bump off Turn 2. Blickensderfer tells Wallace how high Larson and Blaney are running in the corners. Blickensderfer also mentions how he’s observed most of the field exit the corner in Turn 2. Blickensderfer goes over Wallace’s laps and notes

Dale Inman, Hall of Fame crew chief for Petty, walks in and is soon followed by spotter Freddie Kraft, who stands in the walkway because there’s no room to sit down. Kraft and Wallace discuss the lines he ran through the corners and how they compare to other drivers.

Wallace studies the lap times and notes how well they ran: “P12, when’s the last time we’ve seen that?” He gets up to leave and will return a few hours later for qualifying.

If he can repeat that, he’ll likely be among the top 24 to advance to the second round of qualifying. If he does that, maybe he can squeeze more speed out of the car and make it into the top 12 and advance to the final round.

Wallace went out halfway through the 15-minute opening round in qualifying. His time was worse than he had run in final practice. As more cars make runs, Wallace falls outside the top 24. He makes another qualifying attempt. He is on pace to climb into the top 24 when he loses time in Turns 3 and 4 and qualifies 27th with a lap of 15.43 seconds.

Blickensderfer walks into the hauler first. Wallace follows a few strides behind.

Wallace says the car was too loose.

He turns and shouts: “On to tomorrow!”

Wallace walks out of the hauler and slams the sliding doors shut.

Moments later, the crew enters the hauler.

They have been at the track for 11 hours and assaulted by noise the entire time — from generators, power tools, cars and even the public address system, which made sure any moment without sound was filled.

Inside the hauler, the air conditioner hums. Radios and headsets clank on the countertop as the crew puts them away.

There is no other sound.

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer walks back into the team hauler as crew members prepare to put the car on the liftgate after qualifying. (Photo: Dustin Long)

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Friday 5: Can Kyle Larson break out of his slump at Talladega?

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
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Two years ago, Kevin Harvick called Kyle Larson “the best driver to come into this sport since Jeff Gordon.”

Harvick remains bullish on Larson even though the 26-year-old enters this weekend on a 55-race winless drought.

Few drivers could have used last weekend’s break more than Larson — he said at Richmond it has been “a pretty crappy start to the year” — but can he turn things around starting at Talladega Superspeedway?

Larson’s struggles were discussed by Kevin Harvick and co-host Matt Yocum on “Happy Hours” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. Yocum asked Harvick how he kept himself mentally up when things aren’t going well.

Harvick responded by raising questions about Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston.

“I think when you look at (Larson’s) environment, I look at his crew chief,” Harvick said. “I don’t think he’s the most positive guy in the world. When you have a driver that is in a slump, I don’t think it’s going to come from his crew chief. I think Chad is a pretty low-key guy that kind of complains a fair amount.

“I think as you look at that, I don’t know if it’s going to come from his crew chief. I think it will have to come from (car owner) Chip Ganassi or somebody outside of what they do, crew chief to driver. (Larson is) still really young, so he needs some guidance and he needs some help to get through the situations that he’s in. In the end, when his contract is up, I don’t know exactly when that is, but he’s going to be a hot commodity.”

Johnston has been Larson’s crew chief since 2016. Johnston came to Chip Ganassi Racing after he was Tony Stewart’s crew chief in 2014-15. Those were Harvick’s first two seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Larson has scored all five of his Cup victories with Johnston as his crew chief.

Harvick said on his show of Larson: “The bottom line is Kyle Larson is a very, very talented driver that can win a lot of races with the right people around him and the right guidance from somebody kind of helping him finish races and helping him understand when things are good or if things are bad, if you’re running fifth, you need to finish fifth. Having those people around him would in the right environment, the right chemistry and the right things to go with it are really going to help him along in his career.”

It has been a tough start of the season for Larson, who has not finished better than sixth. He led 142 laps at Atlanta but saw his chances to win fade when he was penalized for speeding. Larson finished 12th that day.

Chevrolet’s struggles also haven’t helped Larson or teammate Kurt Busch. Joe Gibbs Racing has won six races for Toyota, and Team Penske has won three races for Ford this season. They’re the only two organizations to win in the first quarter of the season. Chevrolet teams have combined to win four races in the last 45 races, going back to last year’s Daytona 500.

Ganassi noted this week on Twitter the challenges Chevrolet teams face.

Larson’s task doesn’t get easier this weekend. He has five top-10 finishes in 21 Cup starts at Talladega and Daytona. Larson has never finished better than sixth at either track. After finishing 11th at Talladega in the playoffs last year, Larson lamented: “We just had a terrible race car and were really slow all weekend.”

Will the new package this weekend change Larson’s fortune?

2. What to expect this weekend?

Depends on who you ask? Drivers have different takes on what might happen.

There are many questions because of a few changes. Tapered spacers have replaced restrictor plates. Teams are getting about 100 more horsepower, meaning engines will top 500 horsepower.

To offset that speed gain and slow the cars, NASCAR raised the rear spoiler an inch to 9 inches. NASCAR also is mandating a 1-inch bolt-on track bar mount to change the height from 11 to 12 inches, raising the rear of the car by an inch.

“Handling should not be an issue at all, I’m pretty confident in that,” said Joey Logano, who has won three of the last seven Talladega races, including last spring’s event. “It was (before). You could tell some cars were better than others.

“Now, I think the field will be more equally matched. It’s already the great equalizer, and now we’re equalizing it even more. I would assume the pack will be tighter, cars will be closer, more aggressive moves, probably closer blocks. Maybe the runs happen quicker because the hole in the air is bigger. Maybe the runs on the leader will be bigger.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a tandem (draft). That can happen. I don’t know if it will or not. You would think with a spoiler that big there is a good chance of that. We’ll see.”

Paul Menard is among those who question how long tandem drafting — which was prominent about a decade ago — can work, if at all.

“The big restriction with tandem racing is cooling,” he said. “Our radiators and things aren’t made, the spec radiators don’t have the cooling we had a few years ago when we did the tandem. I think you will see people get to people’s bumpers and push as long as they can.”

There are other questions as well

“I am wondering how the side draft will work,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won this race in 2017 for his first career Cup victory. “How you can get different runs on cars and ultimately what you can do when you are out front to maintain the lead. That is what our speedway racing has turned into, get to the top five and if you are in the top two of each lane, bottom or top, how do you stay there. I think a lot of people have it figured out now, but now that the package is going to change. Is that still going to be something easy or capable of doing?”

Practice should be interesting today but even that will not provide all the answers. Those will come Sunday.

3. Memorable moment 10 years ago

The end of the April 26, 2009 race at Talladega will remain one that is replayed with one car flying into the fence on the last lap, a new Cup winner being crowned and the driver whose car flipped running across the finish line to complete a race his car couldn’t.

Brad Keselowski celebrated that day, driving for car owner James Finch in a part-time ride that saw Keselowski drive the No. 09 car five times that season. Keselowski was running full time in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports and did seven Cup races for Hendrick Motorsports in a fifth car teams were allowed to run with a rookie driver.

Keselowski’s future, though, wasn’t with Hendrick Motorsports. The team didn’t have an opening with its four-car team filled by Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin. That lineup would remain intact through the 2011 season.

In October 2009, Keselowski signed with Team Penske. That came less than a month after Martin inked an extension through the 2011 season with Hendrick Motorsports.

Keselowski’s Talladega victory a decade ago was the first of 29 in Cup for him. Six of those 29 victories have come at the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega. He’s won five times at Talladega and once at Daytona.

How different might things have been for Keselowski had he not won that race at Talladega in 2009?

“I’d like to think that it opened some doors for me,” Keselowski said. “It’s hard to say because none of us have complete control over our destiny, but when I look out the window, I’m not sure I would have ended up at Penske if I hadn’t won that race. 

“It was a major marker. It opened up, in my mind at least, but I can’t speak for Roger (Penske) or Discount Tire. It opened up the window for me to get the Discount Tire deal, which I needed to really feel good about driving for Team Penske because that opened up the Xfinity Series for me, opened up the team development side that I thought was going to be so critical to our success and to kind of get Penske on its feet. 

“If you recall, they were in a bad place at the time, and I don’t know if that would have happened without winning that race. Maybe it would have. I don’t know. It’s a better question for Roger and Discount Tire, but either way, I’m glad it happened. I’m thankful and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

4. Working together again?

One of the fascinating elements from the Daytona 500 was how Toyota and Hendrick Motorsports worked so well together to offset the dominance of Fords.

NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan revealed the inside story of that deal after the race.

The question is will such a union be needed this weekend to combat the Fords or will the rules help others gets to the front?

Keep an eye on how this plays out this weekend.

5. White House visit 

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced during a briefing Thursday that reigning Cup champion Joey Logano would be honored at the White House next week, continuing a tradition of Cup champions visiting the President.

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Kligerman’s Talladega car to honor Toyota Racing Development’s 40th anniversary

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NBC NASCAR analyst Parker Kligerman will be back behind the wheel at Talladega Superspeedway for this Sunday’s GEICO 500.

Kligerman will be driving the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota Camry, which will carry a special paint job commemorating the 40th anniversary of Toyota Racing Development.

“We’re proud to honor TRD’s American racing heritage as the organization continues to help build some of the best Toyota engines across all of motorsports,” Kligerman said in a media release. “This paint scheme honors so many great victories over the years.

TRD and Toyota have been involved in all types of racing – from dirt tracks, to the drag strip and pavement ovals – and we can’t wait to see TRD-powered Toyotas in victory lane for years to come.”

Kligerman is looking to improve upon his 15th-place finish in this year’s season-opening Daytona 500.

“It’s a race of attrition, and these super speedways even the playing field,” Kligerman said. “If we can avoid the big crashes, drive a smart race and just be around at the end, our chances are just as good as anyone’s.”

Added TRD president David Wilson, “It’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years since TRD first started in American motorsports. We’ve had a rich history in motorsports with over 1,300 TRD-powered victories across 35 series and we look forward to many more.”

Gaunt Brothers Racing team owner Marty Gaunt has had a relationship with TRD that dates back to 2004.

“It’s such an honor to highlight TRD’s 40th anniversary on our Camry,” Gaunt said. “TRD is a leader in technology and innovation – not just in NASCAR but in many different forms of racing. No matter what team, driver or manufacturer you root for, TRD has helped make the racing product better.”

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NASCAR America: What are the top five upset wins at Talladega?

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Of his 76 career NASCAR Cup wins, Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt earned a record 10 victories at Talladega Superspeedway.

Brad Keselowski has the most wins – five – of active drivers at the 2.66-mile facility, NASCAR’s largest racetrack.

On Thursday’s NASCAR America The MotorSports Hour, Krista Voda and analysts Parker Kligerman and AJ Allmendinger recapped the top five upset wins at ‘Dega:

No. 5: 1981 Talladega 500 – Ron Bouchard beats NASCAR Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte in a wild three-wide finish. Bouchard’s winning margin was 2 feet. He would also go on to win the 1981 NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year honors.

That was Ron Bouchard’s lone win in the Cup Series,” Voda said.

No. 4: 1988 Winston 500 – Phil Parsons earns the only win of his NASCAR Cup career, defeating runner-up and Hall of Famer Bobby Allison by .21 of a second.

Phil Parsons, stealing a win, in the black Skoal Bandit car, the classic Skoal,” Kligerman said. “The hair’s even better on Phil, it’s a blonde mullet.”

No. 3: 2006 UAW-Ford 500: Brian Vickers took out Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the backstretch on the final lap and wins under caution.

Brian Vickers tries to make a move on his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, and takes out Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” Kligerman said. “How did he make it out of Talladega alive?

No. 2: 2009 Aaron’s 499: Brad Keselowski earns his first career Cup win in one of the most dramatic finishes ever seen at Talladega. Carl Edwards tried to block Keselowski and force him below the yellow line at the bottom of the track. Keselowski wasn’t having any of it, held his ground, made contact with Edwards’ car – sending Edwards into the catch fence – and then held on to defeat Dale Earnhardt Jr. by .175 of a second.

You’re not supposed to go below the yellow line, Brad Keselowski said ‘I’m not going below the yellow line,’” Allmendinger said. “Carl Edwards went up in the grandstands and bounced back. I remember driving by there and said ‘wow, that was big.’”

Added Kligerman, “The reason (Keselowski) didn’t go below the yellow line is a year prior, Regan Smith got the win taken away for going below the yellow line. So (Keselowski) listened to that.”

No. 1: 2013 Aaron’s 499: This race went four laps into overtime before Front Row Motorsports teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland finished 1-2 for the organization’s first-ever Cup win. 

It was a long day,” Kligerman said, “It was basically nighttime (in victory lane) with rain delays and tornado warnings. It was a crazy day but that’s an exhilarating win for that team.”

Ragan comes into Sunday’s race “as a long shot, according to Vegas, 100-to-1 odds. Somebody’s got to take that bet,” Voda said. “David Ragan is a name you always have to pay attention to at Talladega.”

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NASCAR America presents The Motorsports Hour at 5 pm ET

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America presents The MotorSports Hour airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, with Parker Kligerman, AJ Allmendinger and Krista Voda.

We’ll cover multiple forms of motorsports, including NASCAR, IndyCar, Supercross and more.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it 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.