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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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).

Toyota has ‘irons in the fire’ for expanding its lineup in NASCAR Cup Series for 2024

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Toyota Racing Development is making a renewed push to expand its lineup in the NASCAR Cup Series, and president David Wilson is optimistic about adding new teams for 2024.

“We’ve got some good irons in the fire now,” Wilson told NBC Sports last weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “What was once a very effective strategy to amass our resources across fewer cars, with the marginalization of the areas that we have to play in and the flattening out of the playing field, we definitely need some more help.”

When TRD entered NASCAR’s premier series as a fourth manufacturer 16 years ago, the target was fielding roughly a quarter of the 43-car field. But Toyota’s Cup fleet always has remained in the single digits even as NASCAR shrunk to three manufacturers and a 40-car field.

Last year, there were six full-time Camrys in Cup between Joe Gibbs Racing (four) and 23XI Racing (two). Wilson said “nine to 10 cars is probably our sweet spot with this new car.”

Over the past two years, TRD has talked to teams within NASCAR and at least two potential car owners who had yet to enter racing. Wilson declined to say if Toyota now is focused on existing or new teams but did rule out a Chevrolet or Ford anchor team such as Hendrick Motorsports or Team Penske.

“We’re talking to a lot of the incumbents,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “It’s a very dynamic time right now. If you’re a team, you want to have an association with a manufacturer. Again, even in spite of the new car, the flattening of the playing field, there’s still something about having an alliance and partnership. The good news is there’s a lot of interest. The bad news is you don’t have to worry about Penske or Hendrick.

“So what’s interesting from a fan standpoint, what’s going to continue to drive interest in our sport is the trajectory of some of the smaller organizations. The Tier 2 or 3 and how they get better. And that’s good for the sport, because as we saw last year, the number of teams that won, the number of drivers that won was historically unprecedented.”

The Next Gen made its debut in NASCAR last year with the goal of reducing costs through standardization of the chassis and parts supplied by single-source vendors while also reducing development expenses. While primarily intended to introduce a more cost-effective team business model, the Next Gen also delivered a new era of competitiveness in its inaugural season. The 2022 season tied a modern-era record with 19 race winners, and the Championship 4 breakthrough by Trackhouse Racing (with Ross Chastain) was indicative of a new crop of teams able to contend outside of the traditional powerhouses.

Wilson also believes the Next Gen should allow TRD to pursue more teams without breaking the bank.

“My budget doesn’t extrapolate with added cars, so it’s a matter of allocating the same resource across more cars and not taking away from your current effort,” Wilson said. “But again, that’s more doable now because we’re much more constrained with our wind tunnel time as an example. That’s a resource that we pay, a number of dollars per hour, and NASCAR continues to trim that back. It wouldn’t surprise me in a couple of years if there is no wind tunnel other than for body submissions purposes. They’re being very intentional and thoughtful about trying to keep coming back into areas where the team feel they have to spend or OEMs feel they have to spend.”

Manufacturer investment remains important, though, and Wilson takes some solace (while also gritting his teeth) about the impact Toyota has made in NASCAR.

After a rough debut in 2007, TRD added Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 and also opened a technical center in Salisbury, North Carolina, that helped drive its approach of getting its teams to work closely together.

It’s been an approach adopted by Ford and Chevrolet over the past decade. Ford opened its tech center in Concord several years ago, and General Motors opened a new 130,000-square-foot performance and tech center last year (just down the road from Hendrick Motorsports headquarters) with NASCAR operations overseen by Dr. Eric Warren.

“To suggest that we don’t have areas to work in, all you have to do is look at the monstrosity that General Motors has built in Concord,” Wilson said. “I haven’t been invited to tour it yet, but I have talked to some folks that have been through, and hats off to Eric and the guys there. They’re investing significant resources. Can’t say that I’m not a little envious.

“We cut the ribbon (on the Salisbury facility) in 2008, and it seems like just yesterday. What I love about this world or what I hate about it, if you’re not constantly moving forward, you’re falling behind. I love it that our competitors are re-evaluating how they participate. Not that they’re following our lead, but when we came in the sport, we were the only ones doing it this way. Getting our hands dirty and really participating is material to the return on that investment. I’m glad that there are others doing the same thing, but it does cause us to look forward and look at what we need to do to make sure that we remain competitive.

“It’s competition. It makes all of us better, and I like that side of it. That’s a microcosm of the greater automotive industry. When Toyota came to this country, ultimately we helped the competition indirectly get better because they had something different to compete against. That’s kind of fun.”

Wilson was at Daytona International Speedway last weekend to watch Vasser Sullivan’s No. 14 Lexus finish third in the GTD Pro category of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.