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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Jagger Jones earns K&N West Rookie of the Year honors

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Like grandfather, like father and now like son. Racing success is definitely a tradition in the Jones family.

Jagger Jones has followed in the shoes of his legendary grandfather Parnelli and father P.J., capturing the 2019 Sunoco K&N Pro Series West Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, it was announced Wednesday.

“(Winning Rookie of the Year) and to win races, those were our two main goals,” the youngest Jones, of Scottsdale, Arizona, said in a statement. “I think the whole season we’ve led the Rookie of the Year standings, which is pretty cool, and separated ourselves from the other rookies and got it done.”

Driving for Sunrise Ford and team owner Bob Bruncati, the 17-year-old Jones earned one win, eight top fives and 11 top 10s in the 14-race season. He also earned one pole, led 248 laps and had an average finish of 5.4. He finished second in the overall standings behind champion Derek Krause and three points ahead of third-ranked Hailie Deegan.

MORE: Parnelli Jones’ grandson Jagger set to make own racing mark in K&N debut

Brittney Zamora, driving for Bill McAnally Racing, finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting.

“McAnally versus Sunrise was definitely the race in the West competition wise,” Jones said. “To get that and finish second in the points in my rookie season, I was pretty pleased with that.”

Jones becomes the sixth Sunrise Ford Racing driver in the last 13 years to win the top rookie honors, joining Jason Bowles (2007), Luis Martinez Jr. (2010), Austin Dyne (2012), Dylan Lupton (2013) and James Bickford (2014). Bill McAnally Racing won the top rookie award in each of the last three seasons: Todd Gilliland (2016), Derek Kraus (2017) and Hailie Deegan (2018).

Sam Mayer previously won the K&N Pro Series East Sunoco Rookie of the Year award for 2019.

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Daniel Hemric, Jeb Burton to drive JR Motorsports’ No. 8 car in 2020

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JR Motorsports’ revealed Wednesday that Jeb Burton and Daniel Hemric will drive its No. 8 Chevrolet for the majority of the 2020 Xfinity Series season, in addition to one race with Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel.

Hemric, who drove Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 car in the Cup Series this season, is scheduled for 21 races.

RCR is replacing Hemric with Tyler Reddick in 2020.

Hemric returns to the Xfinity Series, where he competed for RCR from 2017-18. He made the Championship 4 in both seasons.

“I want to thank Dale, Kelley and everyone at JR Motorsports for believing in me,” Hemric said in a press release. “For a Kannapolis (N.C.) boy like me, driving for the Earnhardt family is pretty awesome.

“My goal here is simple — to go win races for JR Motorsports and to help their program any way that I can. I’ve raced against their cars before and I know how they’re capable of running. My focus is on finishing the Cup season out strong, but once the checkered flag flies at Homestead, we’ll set our sights on getting the No. 8 car to Victory Lane early and often next season.”

Said Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “Daniel is a solid competitor with a great personality. He’ll be a quality addition to our lineup in 2020. We’re lucky to have him. I feel like he has grown as a driver from his time in the Cup Series. That will be valuable to him with this new opportunity to compete in the Xfinity series. He’s a local Kannapolis native with a lot of determination to succeed, and I’m excited to work with him.”

Burton, who has driven in six races for JRM this season, is set for 11 next year.

Other drivers who have piloted the No. 8 for JRM this season included Zane Smith (10 starts), Ryan Truex (six starts), Ryan Preece (four starts), Regan Smith (two starts), Brett Moffitt (one start), Chase Elliott (one start), Sheldon Creed (one start) and Earnhardt (one start).

 

NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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Today’s edition of NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

On the show will be Rutledge Wood, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan.

Obviously, the main topic of discussion will be this weekend’s championship races, particularly the Cup battle between Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

You can join the conversation by calling 1-844-NASCARNBC or reach out on Twitter via #LetMeSayThis.

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.

Viewers guide to 2019 Miami Championship Weekend

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Sunday’s Cup Series championship race will be a significant moment in the career of one driver.

Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick will each battle for the Cup title at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC and NASCAR Hot Pass on NBCSN).

For Truex, Busch and Harvick, they have a chance to join Jimmie Johnson as the only active drivers with multiple titles. One of them would become the 16th Cup driver to win multiple championships.

For Hamlin, he could finally lose his title of the winningest active driver without a championship on his record.

This will be the last scheduled championship weekend in Miami after it has hosted the event since 2002. Next year it will move to ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

Here’s a guide to the final weekend of the NASCAR season:

FUN WITH NUMBERS

The Championship 4 is three against one on multiple levels.

As mentioned, it will feature three past champions going against Hamlin, who will try to win his first title in his 14th year of full-time Cup competition. In his only other Championship 4 appearance in 2014, Hamlin finished third.

Three Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing will be pitted against one Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 driven by Harvick.

“(We need to) beat three Gibbs cars.  Go faster than them,” Harvick said. “We’re going to do everything just like we’ve done all year.”

Three drivers in their 30s – Busch (34 years old), Truex (39) and Hamlin (38) – are going against Harvick, whose 43.

CHAMPIONSHIP BIRTHDAY?

Speaking of ages….

Like everyone else, Hamlin’s birthday falls on the same date every year – Nov. 18.

This year it falls on the day after Hamlin could claim his first title.

“Homestead is always my birthday weekend,” Hamlin said. “I want to have two reasons to celebrate, not just one.”

Hamlin recalled the last time he came this close to a title.

“In 2010 I shut everyone out,” Hamlin said. “Like I didn’t do any of the birthday stuff.  I didn’t hang out with anyone.  I really didn’t respond to calls or texts or anything like that.  But I’m not going to be that way I don’t think this time around because I just am not going to change who I am.”

Should he win the championship by winning Sunday’s race, he’d earn his 38th Cup Series victory on his last day of being 38 years old.

Also, a win Sunday would be Hamlin’s seventh of the season. That would make him the winningest Daytona 500 winner in a season since Jeff Gordon had seven victories in 1999.

RACE WINNER = CHAMPION

This weekend marks the sixth edition of the Cup championship race under the elimination playoff format.

While the championship is simply awarded to the highest-finishing driver out of the Championship 4, each year the champion has won the race.

2014 – Kevin Harvick (led final eight laps)

2015 – Kyle Busch (led eight of final 10 laps)

2016 – Jimmie Johnson (only led final three laps as part of an overtime finish)

2017 – Martin Truex Jr. (led final 51 laps)

2018 – Joey Logano (led final 12 laps after passing Truex)

Should Busch win on Sunday, he would end a 21-race winless streak.

“It’s obviously a great opportunity to be able to go race for a championship, and that’s what this format is,” Busch said. “It doesn’t mean a whole lot to make it to the Championship 4 if you don’t win it. You know, it’s all reset to zero. There are four of us who go for winner-take-all at Homestead. … It’s what your whole season comes down to.”

ONE LAST MONSTER MASH

Sunday’s race will be the last that Monster Energy serves as the title sponsor for the Cup Series.

Starting in 2020, the Cup Series will movie to a tiered sponsor system with no title sponsor.

The Cup Series has had a title sponsor since 1971 when Winston entered the role it held until 2003.

Nextel owned the naming rights from 2004-07. Sprint then held the rights through 2016 with Monster taking over in 2017.

RUNNING OUT OF TIME

Three drivers who won races in 2018 have a last shot to earn their first victory of this season.

They include Austin Dillon (won the Daytona 500), Clint Bowyer (two wins in 2018) and Aric Almirola (one win).

This will also be Jimmie Johnson’s last opportunity to keep from going winless in two straight seasons. He is winless in the last 94 races (June 2017 at Dover).

UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN

Sunday will mark the final full-time Cup starts for Paul Menard and David Ragan.

Both have said they plan to continue racing but suggest it could be in other forms beyond Cup.

Menard, the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner, will make his 471st Cup start Sunday. While he did not have as much success as others, he’ll be remembered for his quiet demeanor, abstinence from social media and devoted fan base.

Ragan, who won at Daytona in 2011 and Talladega in 2013, will make his 470th Cup start Sunday.

Both began running full-time in 2007 in a rookie class that included Juan Pablo Montoya and AJ Allmendinger. Montoya won rookie of the year honors.

Front Row Motorsports

Ragan said he’s looked at schedules for ARCA and some Late Model races across the country. He also said there are plans for him to drive the Next Gen car next year in some testing.

“Ford Motor Company has been a really good partner of mine and a supporter of my career since day one, and so I’m working with those guys on how I can help the big picture from Ford Performance and how we can work on next year and the Next Generation car as it rolls out,” Ragan said.

Ragan will be driving a throwback paint scheme on his No. 38 Ford. It will look like the car Ragan won with at Talladega with Front Row Motorsports.

MOVING ON 

This weekend will be the last for a handful of drivers in their current rides before they transition to a new team, while others are still without announced plans for beyond Sunday.

Leavine Family Racing’s Matt DiBenedetto will replace Menard in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford.

Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell will succeed DiBenedetto in LFR’s No. 95 Toyota.

Rookie Daniel Hemric is being replaced by Richard Childress Racing in its No. 8 Chevrolet with Tyler Reddick next season. Hemric will drive for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series in 21 race in its No. 8 car.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Daniel Suarez has not announced his plans for next season. The 2016 Xfinity champion will end his third Cup season on Sunday.

JTG Daugherty Racing and Roush Fenway Racing will be swapping drivers after the Miami race. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. go from driving Roush’s No. 17 Ford to JTG Daugherty to replace Chris Buescher. Meanwhile, Buescher will return to Roush after five years away to drive the No. 17.

Rookie Matt Tifft will not be back in Front Row Motorsports’ No. 36 Ford. He can’t commit to racing next year after he suffered a seizure last month. He’s missed the last two races while John Hunter Nemechek has competed in his place. Nemechek will be in the car this weekend.

NEW TIRE

All three national series will compete on a new tire set-up compared to what was used at this track last year.

This is the same combination of left and right-side tires each series ran at Chicagoland and those in the Cup and Xfinity Series ran at Darlington this season.

This left and right-side tire features construction updates to align with what is run at other speedways, while this right-side tire takes teams from a multi-zone tread tire to a single zone tire and will increase grip.

“The compounds we will be running provide plenty of grip, but also offer the endurance needed on Homestead’s track surface,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, in a press release.  “These high wear tracks put on some of our best races, and the past several years at Homestead have proven that.  Tire fall-off creates more ‘comers’ and ‘goers’ over the course of a long run, which means more passing and tire management being an important element of the race.”

TWO OTHER CHAMPIONSHIPS AT STAKE

The Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series also will crown their champions this weekend.

The Truck Series will race Friday night. Defending champion Brett Moffitt, two-time champion Matt Crafton, Ross Chastain and Stewart Friesen will compete for the title.

The Xfinity Series will race Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Cole CusterChristopher BellTyler Reddick and Justin Allgaier will compete for the crown. Reddick won this race last year to claim the championship

This will be the final full-time Xfinity starts for Bell and Reddick before the jump to the Cup Series next year.