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

Leave a comment

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)

 and on Facebook

 

Ross Chastain to drive for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021

Ross Chastain
Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Ross Chastain will return to Chip Ganassi Racing next season and drive the No. 42 Cup car, multiple reports stated Monday morning.

The news was first reported by motorsport.com.

Chastain replaces Matt Kenseth, who was hired in April to take over the car after Kyle Larson was fired.

“I can’t thank Chip enough for this opportunity,” Chastain told The Associated Press. “The faith he and the organization showed me back in 2018 was a real turning point in my career and I am extremely happy for the chance to join the team again. Racing in the Cup Series with a serious contender has always been my goal, and I’m looking forward to joining what is a very strong team.

“I know I have my work cut out for me, but I’m ready to get to work and help bring more success to the organization.”

Chastain drove three Xfinity races for Chip Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity team in 2018, winning at Las Vegas. He was to drive a full Xfinity season fo the team in 2019 before sponsorship went away after DC Solar’s offices were raided by the FBI and the company later declared bankruptcy.

The 27-year-old Chastain has been among the sport’s busiest drivers the past three years in NASCAR.

He drove in 77 of 92 Cup, Xfinity and Truck races last year. He’s competed in 194 of 256 Cup, Xfinity and Truck races (75.8%) run since 2018.

Chastain’s Cup rides primarily have been with underfunded teams. He drove three races this season for Roush Fenway Racing. Chastain filled in for Ryan Newman as Newman recovered from the head injury he suffered in the Daytona 500.

Chastain is competing for the Xfinity championship this season for Kaulig Racing. He is winless this season but has five runner-up finishes, including this past weekend at Bristol.

Clint Bowyer: ‘Getting back to our consistency’ ahead of next round

Leave a comment

After entering Saturday’s Cup race at Bristol in the final transfer spot to the Round of 12, Clint Bowyer can rest easy for now.

Bowyer is one of the 12 drivers left to fight for the Cup title after his sixth-place finish Saturday. He goes into next weekend’s race at Las Vegas 11th in the standings.

Now, Bowyer says it’s time for his No. 14 team to “live up to our capabilities.”

“I just feel comfortable, we’re getting back to our consistency,” Bowyer said Saturday night. “I guess for a long time in my career I was kind of Steady Eddie, and that’s what it takes in these playoffs, to go the rounds, you can’t make mistakes. I said that going into these playoffs. For our team, we’ve got to live up to our capabilities, and if we can do that and race to our capabilities and not make the mistakes we were making through the summer months, we can contend and move forward rounds in this playoff system, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Bowyer, who was the last driver to finish on the lead lap at Bristol, goes to Las Vegas with three consecutive top 10s to start the playoffs.

Before the playoffs opened, he had gone 11 races with just two top 10s.

“Looking forward to getting out to Sin City and having some fun out there,” Bowyer said. “Hopefully we can double down, get some stage points and continue to march forward up through this playoff system and the points. We’re definitely starting behind again, there’s no question about that.”

Bowyer will start the second round with 3,004 points, tied with Kyle Busch. Kurt Busch is 12th with 3,001 points.

MORE: Points entering second round

“We’ve got to get out there and swing for the fence,” Bowyer said. “These are the playoffs; you don’t base hit it. Steady Eddie got us through this round, but from here on you’ve got to get up to the plate and swing for the fence every time, and every decision, and that’s in the car and out of the car, we’ve got to lay it on the line and go for it, and that’s why these playoffs are fun.

Bowyer has just one top-five finish in 17 Las Vegas starts (2009) and the most recent of his four top 10s there came in 2017.

Then comes the “crapshoot” know as Talladega and the “fun” Charlotte Roval.

“I like it. I’m ready,” Bowyer said. “Things can happen. At the end of the day I’ve had a different approach to the whole thing this year. This whole damned year has been chaotic and everything else, and you’ve just got to go out there and do the best you can do and not worry about or panic about anything else. That’s all you can do anyway.”

Bristol winners and losers

Leave a comment

WINNERS

Kevin Harvick Only two drivers in the last quarter century have won 10 Cup races in a season (Jimmie Johnson in 2007 and Jeff Gordon in 1996-98). Harvick’s win at Bristol marked his career-high ninth of the season. He appears headed to join that elite class.

Austin Dillon His 12th-place finish wasn’t memorable but it was good enough to advance to the second round of the playoffs. He had failed to transfer from the first round the last two times he was in the playoffs.

Kyle BuschFinished second, scoring top-10 finishes in all three first-round playoff races. It’s the first time this season he has had three consecutive top 10s. Still, a frustrated Busch was critical of competitors and his playoff hopes.

Erik Jones His third-place finish matches his best of the season. Result came after he had to start at the rear for inspection issues (just as Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin also had to do so).

Michael McDowell His 10th-place finish is his fourth top 10 of the season. That equals how many top 10s he scored from 2017-19.

Chase Briscoe He won the Xfinity race Saturday at Bristol for his seventh victory of the season.

Sam MayerThe 17-year-old won his first career Truck race and followed it a few hours later by winning the ARCA race at Bristol.

LOSERS

Ryan Blaney Failed to advance to the second round, a round where he could be among the favorites to win a race. He was in position to win at Las Vegas in the spring before being called to pit before the overtime restart and losing the lead. He’s won the past two Talladega races, including last year’s playoff race there. He won the inaugural Charlotte Roval in 2018. What might have been. But a 10-point penalty for an inspection issue at Darlington and struggles there and at Richmond doomed him.

William Byron His playoffs ended with contact before the halfway mark. 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Contact with Jimmie Johnson sent him into the wall. Stenhouse finished last. It is the third time he’s finished 40th this season.

Kevin Harvick wins Bristol night race

Leave a comment

Kevin Harvick held off Kyle Busch to win Saturday’s Cup night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Harvick came out on top after a spirited battle with Busch over the last 40 laps of the race. Harvick claimed his ninth win of the season, a career-best mark. He previous high was eight wins in 2018.

“To beat Kyle Busch at Bristol, I kind of got myself in a little bit of a ringer there,” Harvick told NBCSN. “I hit a lapped car and got a hole in the right-front nose, but just kept fighting. We don’t have anything else to lose. We were here to try to win a race.”

The top five was completed by Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick and Aric Almirola. Clint Bowyer finished sixth and was the last car on the lead lap.

MORE: Race results, points standings

MORE: What drivers said after the race

Busch, who is now winless through the first 29 races of the season, finished second after he started from the rear due to two pre-race inspection failures. He took the lead for the first time when he left pit road first during the Stage 1 break. He wound up leading 159 laps to Harvick’s 226.

Harvick’s nine victories has him on pace to become the first driver to win at least 10 Cup races in a season in more than a decade and only the third driver to reach that mark in the past quarter century. Harvick has won three of the last five races.

“It’s just been a weird year, but it’s been an unbelievable year on the racetrack,” Harvick said. “I can’t thank everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing enough.”

Jimmie Johnson is the last driver to accomplish the feat. He won 10 races in 2007. The only other driver to reach that mark in the last 25 years is Jeff Gordon. He won 13 races in 1998 and 10 races each in 1996 and ’97.

The last driver not from Hendrick Motorsports to reach at least 10 wins in a season was Rusty Wallace. He won 10 times in 1993 for car owner Roger Penske.

Ryan Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron and Cole Custer entered the race below the cutline to advance to the Round of 12 and were all eliminated from contention.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Elliott

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Busch

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Erik Jones earned his second top five in the last three races … Tyler Reddick earned his third top five of the season and his first since the July 19 race at Texas … Ryan Preece placed ninth for his first top 10 of the year … Michael McDowell finished 10th for his fourth top 10 this season, a career-best

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished last after he was eliminated in a crash on Lap 29 after he made contact with Jimmie Johnson … Matt DiBenedetto’s chances of advancing in the playoffs were dashed when he had to pit for loose right rear tire on Lap 187 and then was caught speeding on pit road after returning to the lead lap. He finished 19th …. Martin Truex Jr. finished 24th after he had to pit for a tire issue on Lap 214 … Denny Hamlin finished 21st after he rammed into the back of Truex moments after he exited pit road following his stop … William Byron was eliminated from the race and playoff contention late in Stage 2 after he ran into the back of Christopher Bell … Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski placed 34th after he lost power steering early in the final stage and was black flagged for not meeting minimum speeding. After a lengthy stay in the garage, Keselowski returned to the race with about 105 laps left in the race.

WHAT’S NEXT: Round of 12 opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 7 p.m. ET Sept. 27 on NBCSN.