Inside Richard Petty Motorsports: A night to forget

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Dustin Long spent last week with Richard Petty Motorsports to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at all that takes place before a race. 

Part 1: Putting together a game plan for Bristol

Part 2: Searching for sponsorship 

Part 3: Bubba Wallace earns respect from fans, crew 

Part 4: A day filled with highs and lows 

BRISTOL, Tenn. — The lift gate slammed with a thud, loud enough to be heard over the roar of cars that circled Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Richard Petty Motorsports hauler was loaded about 45 minutes after the team’s race ended after three laps Saturday night because of a crash.

“It sucks,” car chief Jason Sheets said.

Crew members load Bubba Wallace’s wrecked car in the hauler. (Photo: Dustin Long)

He laughed — what else could one do? — and shrugged his shoulders. Then, he walked away with the rest of the team toward the Turn 3 tunnel. They headed to a nearby airport for the 22-minute flight to Statesville (North Carolina) Regional Airport and then a drive home.

There was no storybook ending for this underfunded single-car team. They had hoped to repeat how well Bubba Wallace ran at Bristol in April when he drove to the front and led six laps. A blistered left-front tire relegated him to a 16th-place finish that day.

With potential sponsors at the track Saturday, Richard Petty Motorsports executives hoped for a similar type performance minus the blistered tire.

Bristol marked the fifth time in the last six races that Medallion Bank and Petty’s Garage — companies operated by co-owners Andrew Murstein and Richard Petty — were on the car because no other company paid the be the primary sponsor. The team does not have a primary sponsor for six of the season’s final 12 races.

Missing that sponsorship, there isn’t money for the newest parts and RPM can’t build new cars as often. It makes it difficult to compete against bigger teams. Richard Petty Motorsports last had a top-10 finish in April at Texas.

Bristol doesn’t rely as much on aerodynamics, so the money bigger teams outspend RPM on engineering doesn’t make as much an impact there as at a bigger track.

(Clockwise left to right) Engineering intern Erik Long, car chief Jason Sheets and mechanic Joey Forgette before Saturday’s race (Photo: Dustin Long)

That’s significant because RPM has two engineers. As part of the Richard Childress Racing technical alliance, the team has access to RCR’s engineers.

With only one engineer, Derek Stamets, able to travel this weekend, RPM was loaned Erik Long, an engineering intern at RCR who has one final semester remaining at UNC Charlotte.

The team was hopeful after Wallace was 12th on the speed chart in Friday’s final practice but the performance dropped in qualifying when he failed to advance beyond the first round and started 27th. Frustrated, Wallace spoke briefly with crew chief Drew Blickensderfer before walking out to the hauler Friday and slamming the sliding doors shut.

Later that night, Wallace and Blickensderfer texted about how the car handled and changes that needed for the race. They settled on a setup similar to what Wallace had at the end of the April race with one change to prevent the left front tire from blistering again.

Blickensderfer was confident Saturday evening in the car’s performance after about 20 laps. With a competition caution set for Lap 60, he had a plan in place of pitting if there was a caution about 30 laps into the race to get off sequence from the leaders and gain track position later when they pitted.

Bubba Wallace with his team shortly before the start of the race. (Photo: Dustin Long)

The mood was light around the car on pit road before the start when Blickensderfer walked out there. Wallace joked with his teammates. As Wallace grabbed his helmet to put on, the public address system played the song “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People. Wallace joined the crowd in doing the hand motions during the refrain. Once inside the car, he exchanged playful hand gestures with interior mechanic David Cropps, whose job is to ensure Wallace’s equipment keeps the driver safe in an accident.

As the cars align for the start, spotter Freddie Kraft gives Wallace,on the inside of Row 14, instructions.

“One to go at the line,” Kraft tells Wallace on the radio. “Just try to rubber up that bottom (line) as best you can here. … I’m just worried about it being real slick the first lap, you know what I mean? (The traction compound) will burn in within the first lap or so, but the first lap might be a little slick.”

Wallace then tells the team: “All right boys, let’s see what we can do at the end of the night. Good times coming from inside the car. Appreciate the hard work. Let’s see what we can do. Appreciate it. Love you.”

Kraft tells Wallace: “Take care of that thing. Let’s have some fun tonight, brother. Let’s go to work.”

The green flag waves.

Forty-four seconds later, Kraft yells on the radio: “Check up! Check up! Check up! Check up! Check up! Down! Down! Down! Down! Down! Down! Down! Down! Son of a bitch. We’re killed.”

Kyle Busch slides up the track in Turns 3 and 4, bounces off Ryan Blaney and slides down the frontstretch. Wallace ran into the back of AJ Allmendinger’s car, goes low and then is forced into the inside wall when Daniel Suarez cuts hard left to avoid Busch’s car.

A NASCAR official points to the fluid leaking from Bubba Wallace’s car after he was collected in a crash. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Wallace makes it to pit road. The damage is too great. The radiator and oil cooler are damaged and fluid drains from the bottom of the car.

Wallace’s race is over. He climbs from the car and slams his helmet against roof.

He fist bumps his teammates and thanks them for their work.

Wallace will finish 38th, completing three of 500 laps.

“I was pissed there for a moment,” he said after exiting the infield care center. “Then you just laugh about it. It’s crazy. Can’t even make it two laps, I don’t know if we made it a lap and then we’re wadded up. Just a bummer. I usually sweat pretty easily. Hell, I didn’t have enough time (in the car) to sweat.”

With that, his duties are done, a weekend gone. He walks out of the care center and heads toward the tunnel to leave.

The race continues without Wallace and Richard Petty Motorsports.

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Watch NASCAR Cup Awards Show at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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Get settled into your favorite easy chair, make sure you have plenty of snacks and beverages on hand and get ready for the last big event of 2019 on the NASCAR schedule: tonight’s NASCAR Awards Show.

The show will be broadcast on NBCSN from 8-10:30 p.m. ET from Nashville, Tennessee, for the first time. And if you miss some of the show, don’t worry, there’ll be a replay immediately afterward, also on NBCSN.

Kyle Busch will be the main attraction for tonight’s show, being celebrated for winning his second NASCAR Cup championship this past season.

Also, the 2019 NASCAR Cup Most Popular Driver award winner will be revealed. Will it be defending winner Chase Elliott, reigning champion Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Matt DiBenedetto … or someone else? You definitely need to tune in to find out.

And to get you in the mood, we’ll replay Wednesday’s Burnouts on Broadway at 7 p.m. ET, also on NBCSN.

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Will Daniel Suarez race for Richard Childress Racing in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The president of Richard Childress Racing said it is a “longshot” that Daniel Suarez will drive a third Cup entry for the organization in 2020 but said RCR would like to have Suarez drive its No. 2 Xfinity car next year.

Suarez has not decided where he’ll race in 2020 after losing his ride with Stewart-Haas Racing this year.

Suarez has been linked with RCR. A third Cup entry would require RCR to acquire another charter for that car. It also could mean that the organization would need to hire additional people if they expanded to three full-time cars.

“I think that would be a long shot in a Cup program,” Torrey Galida told NBC Sports about Suarez in a third RCR Cup entry. “We’ve talked to him about an Xfinity program. We’d love to have him in an Xfinity car, and we think we could win another championship next year with Daniel. He’s a very talented young man.”

Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Xfinity car will run the full season with multiple drivers in 2020. Myatt Snider and Anthony Alfredo have been announced to drive that car. Galida said the team is looking at Kaz Grala, Austin Dillon and possibly two-time series champ Tyler Reddick driving that car in select races.

RCR ran the No. 21 car in nine of 33 Xfinity races this past season. It ran the No. 2 car in every race.

If Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity champion, drove for RCR in the Xfinity Series next year, it would be with the organization’s No. 2 car.

“We could still do that and we would do that,” Galida said of a full-time Xfinity effort for Suarez. “That’s the kind of opportunity we would be interested in.”

Galida said it just is a matter of hearing what Suarez decides.

“I think he knows what we’ve got to offer, and I think he’s just weighing his alternatives and trying to determine what is best for him,” Galida told NBC Sports. “I’m sure that going back to the Xfinity Series is not his first choice. I think in the right equipment it could be a really good move for him.”

Galida said they could go into January before hearing from Suarez but noted that “the sooner the better. People are your biggest issue. You want to put the right people around him.”

Next April’s Xfinity race at Bristol to have new sponsor

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Bristol Motor Speedway announced Thursday that partner Alsco, along with Darden Restaurants and its Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen brand, will sponsor next April’s Xfinity Series race there.

The Cheddar’s 300 presented by Alsco will take place on Saturday, April 4, 2020.

Alsco is a global leader in uniform and linen rental services. In addition to its entitlement at Bristol Motor Speedway, Alsco will take part in Xfinity Series entitlements at three other Speedway Motorsports Inc. racetracks: Kentucky Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Alsco’s initial entitlement at BMS came this past April with the Alsco 300 Xfinity Series race, won by Christopher Bell, who earned a $100,000 bonus through Xfinity’s Dash 4 Cash program.

Alsco is also a sponsor for Richard Childress Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports and JR Motorsports.

“Bristol is the place for historic finishes and close, hard-knock racing action,” said Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Alsco and our new friends at Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen understand the reputation of racing at The Last Great Colosseum and we’re ready to show them an incredible experience. The Cheddar’s 300 presented by Alsco is a must-see event on the NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule.”

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Cup champion’s celebration painful to those who didn’t win title

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A year after being feted for his first NASCAR Cup title, Joey Logano returned to Champion’s Week with a different feeling.

“These banquets aren’t really the same after you’ve won it and you know what it’s like to see your car plastered everywhere and your team and everyone is having fun together,” Logano said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we’re in Nashville, there’s a lot of really cool things, but it really stinks for the competitor to come to the banquet because it’s just like another reminder that you got beat. That’s not much fun. I don’t really like that part.

“When you leave the banquet that night, you really wish you could race the next day because that’s about the most motivating thing you could do is go to a banquet that you didn’t win because all you want to do is change that. And you want to do it as quickly as possible but you’ve got to wait until Daytona to get going again.”

The sport celebrates Kyle Busch’s championship at 8 p.m. ET today on NBCSN. This marks the first year the NASCAR Awards Show has been in Nashville. Busch was a part of the WWE event in the city on Monday, was honored by the Nashville Predators before Tuesday’s NHL game and took part in the Burnouts on Broadway on Wednesday with many other playoff drivers.

While Busch basks in the celebration, teammate Martin Truex Jr. deals with the pain of finishing second in the championship for a second consecutive year. Logano passed Truex late to win last year’s championship. Truex’s title run this season was derailed, in part, by his crew putting the wrong tires on the wrong side of the car in last month’s championship race in Miami.

Had things gone a little differently, Truex could have won three consecutive championships, matching Cale Yarborough’s accomplishment from 1976-78.

“I’ll tell you when I get over it,” Truex said of the pain of finishing second again for the title. “It’s a  big deal. Work all year long to put yourself in that position. When it doesn’t turn out the way you hope, it’s tough.

“A lot of people put a lot of effort into it. It’s not something that goes away. It takes time. Honestly, I’m still sour about finishing second last year, too. Two years in a row finishing second hurts. you have to learn from it and move on, but you never forget it.”