Friday 5: How a toy led to a racing career; rare NASCAR event Sunday at Atlanta

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The Christmas present? Jose Blasco-Figueroa can’t recall who it came from more than 40 years later.

But the battery-powered toy Formula One car that emitted engine sounds and smoke put Blasco-Figueroa on a path that led him from his Mexico City home to North Carolina and a first in NASCAR’s modern era (since 1972).

Blasco-Figueroa will serve as crew chief Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway for Daniel Suarez, who is from Monterrey, Mexico. This marks the first time that a Cup team’s driver/crew chief combination has come from Mexico since brothers Pedro and Ricardo Rodriguez worked together for one race in 1959.

Blasco-Figueroa is Trackhouse Racing’s lead engineer. He’ll fill in for crew chief Travis Mack, who was suspended one race by NASCAR due to a lug nut violation last weekend at Phoenix.

As the 47-year-old Blasco-Figueroa prepares for this weekend, he thinks back to that toy race car.

“I remember playing with that a lot and trying to understand the whole (steering) mechanism,” he told NBC Sports. “That started it all. Then I loved cars.”

He spent his first 23 years in Mexico City and joined General Motors. That sent him to Michigan for about 18 months before he returned to Mexico for GM. He left the company to earn his master’s degree in England. While he hoped for an opportunity with a Formula One team, nothing materialized.

He did work for a CART team in 2001. For a week. He was with the team at a test at Laguna Seca. When the CART race in Brazil was canceled early in the season, the team’s Brazilian-based sponsor pulled out and the team shut down.   

Jose Blasco-Figueroa (Photo: Trackhouse Racing)

Blasco-Figueroa returned to Mexico and worked for GM. He also taught and worked in racing. Eventually, he quit his other jobs to focus on racing.

After the NASCAR Mexico Series went on hiatus in 2016, Blasco-Figueroa needed to find a job. When his wife went to Europe on business, he planned to meet her in New York City upon her return. Before going there, he went to Charlotte, North Carolina to try to find work in NASCAR.

He left his resume at several Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck race shops. By the time he met his wife a few days later in New York, he had three job offers.

One offer came 10 minutes after he left his resume. It was from BK Racing. Crew chief Gene Nead was given the resume and emailed Blasco-Figueroa to call him back.

BK Racing was the smallest team to offer Blasco-Figueroa, but Nead provided the most compelling reason to join the team.

“He said, ‘Look, I know you have a good background but not with these cars,’” Blasco-Figueroa said. “His point was, ‘Here, you can do whatever you want. Being a small team, you have the opportunity to play around more, learn more. You go to a bigger team, you’re going to be a part of a bigger operation but (be more focused in one area). You won’t learn much.’”

Less than a year later, Nead helped get Blasco-Figueroa an interview at Richard Childress Racing. That turned into a job. Blasco-Figueroa has been there since, minus a brief period with a Truck team before returning to RCR and being assigned to Trackhouse Racing.

While Mack will still make the calls remotely Sunday, Blasco-Figueroa says that serving as crew chief and representing Mexico with Suarez is meaningful.

“Yes, it’s significant as Mexicans because, to me, it shows people back home that if you want to do something, you just go ahead and do it,” Blasco-Figueroa said. “You can achieve it. … Talent doesn’t have a country of origin. If you’re good at what you’re doing, you can do it anywhere.”

2. Bad race hangover

The metric used to calculate the starting lineup includes how a driver does the previous race. Finish well, then the driver likely will start the next race toward the front. Have a poor race, then the driver likely will start the next race toward the back.

Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are among those who have not scored points in the first stage this season.

Aric Almirola, who has had three finishes of 30th or worse, has not started in the top 15 since the Daytona 500. He’ll start 16th Sunday at Atlanta (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox).

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500
It has been a rough start to the season for Aric Almirola, shown after he was wrecked early in the Daytona 500. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

“Starting in the back is a dagger every week,” Almirola said. “That’s the hard part about the situation that we’re in now, not only the fact that we don’t get practice, but when you have a bad weekend it doesn’t end with that weekend, it carries over into the next week. 

“It used to be if you have a bad weekend, you could put it behind you. You go to the racetrack the next weekend and it’s a fresh start. You practice, you qualify, you have an opportunity to qualify up front and get a good pit selection and a good starting spot and really start completely over with that brand new weekend. 

“Now, when you have a bad weekend, it really carries over to the next weekend because you have a bad starting spot, you have a bad pit selection. A bad pit selection usually means that you’re gonna be pitting around other cars that are competitive and on the lead lap, so you’re constantly going to be battling with them getting in and out of your pit box.

“It just makes everything more difficult and harder to dig out of these holes, so it is a challenge with starting in the back, not scoring stage points usually in the first stage.”

Only the Daytona 500 has had qualifying this season. In the other four races, the field was set by NASCAR’s metrics. In those races, half of the top-10 finishers in the first stage started in the top 10.

In the last four races, four drivers scored points in the first stage despite starting at the rear of the field for either inspection issues or unapproved adjustments.

In some cases, pit strategy helped cars that started deeper in the field use fresher tires to climb into the top 10 by the end of a stage. That worked for Chase Elliott, William Byron and Kyle Larson at Phoenix. All started at the rear but pitted for fresher tires while the leaders did not.

Starting on the pole, though, hasn’t guaranteed scoring points in the first stage. Kevin Harvick started on the pole at Las Vegas and did not score points in either stage. Denny Hamlin started on the pole in Miami and did not score points in the first stage.

Even so, Newman said he’d prefer a different way to set the starting lineup.

“I’d much rather, personally, prefer if it was a random draw,” he said. “… That’s what I think it really should be, but, again, it is what it is.  We haven’t done a good enough job. We need to continue to do a better job and move up.”

3. Kyle Busch’s work ethic

David Wilson, Toyota Racing Development President, lauded Kyle Busch’s work ethic while discussing challenges with Toyota’s simulation program this week.

Busch noted after his third-place finish earlier this month at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that what he and crew chief Ben Beshore learned in the simulator did not translate to the race. That contributed to some of the challenges Busch and Beshore had with fixing the car’s handling.

“We came to the racetrack super, super tight,” Busch said after Las Vegas. “I mean, eight numbers tighter on the racetrack than it was in the sim. Typically when you’re good in the sim, you’re about two numbers loose. I don’t know. That’s a 10-number difference, right? It’s just a big deal.

“I mean, a lot of it is tire. We have to figure out the tire model, and try to make what we think is right there. I don’t know, we’ll keep working on it. That’s the only tool we’ve got.”

Wilson, speaking Thursday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, discussed the sim and the work Busch has done.

“Where we struggled last year is too often we unloaded and we were just off and our simulation wasn’t as good as it should have been,” Wilson said. “You may have remembered soundbites from Kyle Busch this year. He’s talked a lot about simulation.

“What I have a tremendous amount of respect for Kyle Busch is that he has been up to Salisbury (N.C.) to our facility up there and driven our driver sim more than he has in past years. That’s a reflection of him doing the work and his wanting to help us improve this tool.

“He was there not only before Las Vegas, but he came the Monday after Las Vegas to do what we call a post-(race sim), to re-run and learn why he wasn’t good enough. Because if you remember the end of Las Vegas, he was actually the fastest car on track, faster than Kyle Larson. Now, had we been able to figure that out earlier in the race, I think Kyle Busch would have had something.”

4. Back for one more

Fourteen years after he last drove in a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race, Bill Lester is back to compete in Saturday’s event for David Gilliland Racing.

Lester knows the challenge he faces with no practice and qualifying before he races in the series for the first time since 2007.

“I’m going to have to acquaint myself to it really fast,” said Lester, who has 142 Truck Series starts.

NASCAR Bill Lester Atlanta
Bill Lester (left) talks with his father before Lester made his first Cup start in March 2006 at Atlanta. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

He made two Cup starts, becoming the sixth Black driver to run in NASCAR’s premier series — and first in 20 years — when he made the Atlanta race in March 2006.

Lester said he’s appreciative of how the sport has changed since he last raced, noting NASCAR’s ban of the Confederate flag last year.

“I was so moved that I sent an email to (NASCAR President) Steve Phelps and said ‘Thank you. I really appreciate what you did. That was a huge statement,’” Lester said.

He also says that he believes Bubba Wallace can make a significant impact and draw more competitors and interest from the Black community with more success.

“As soon as somebody like Bubba starts winning and more folks from the Black community start seeing that and realizing that’s something that they can do, because they see that, they have that exposure, then that will be something they start trying to do,” Lester said.

“Then the next thing comes in, which is opportunity. You have to have the opportunity to be able to take advantage of it. With motorsports, it is so ungodly expensive, as you know, it’s extremely difficult.”

Lester said with the right opportunity and an early start, the next generation can make an impact.

“They can’t start early enough and they can’t have enough resources, that’s all there is to it,” he said.

5. Will streak continue?

Much has been made about the season starting with five different winners, but there’s a longer streak to consider.

There have been different winners in each of the last eight races on 1.5-mile speedways. Atlanta is a 1.5-mile speedway. Will that streak grow to nine different winners?

Here is who have won the last eight 1.5-mile races:

Kyle Larson Las Vegas (March 2021)

William Byron Miami (February 2021)

Kyle Busch Texas (October 2020)

Joey Logano — Kansas (October 2020)

Kurt Busch — Las Vegas (September 2020)

Denny Hamlin — Kansas (July 2020)

Austin Dillon — Texas (July 2020)

Cole Custer — Kentucky (July 2020)

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Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.

 

 

Winners and losers from the Clash at the Coliseum

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the non-points race that opened the NASCAR season:

WINNERS

Martin Truex Jr. — Truex limped through a frustrating 2022 season, going winless and contemplating writing “finish” to his driving career. But he decided late in the year to make another run, and that choice paid big dividends Sunday as he put Joe Gibbs Racing in victory lane.

Richard Childress Racing — RCR opened the season with power, putting Austin Dillon in second and newcomer Kyle Busch in third. The new teammates even enjoyed some late-race collaboration, Busch backing off a second-place battle to give Dillon a chance to make a run at eventual winner Truex.

Ryan Preece — Preece, given a shot in the offseason at a full-time ride in Cup with Stewart-Haas Racing, showed strength in his first outing, leading 43 laps before electrical issues dropped him to seventh.

Bubba Wallace — Wallace held the lead at the halfway point and totaled 40 laps in first but was drop-kicked by Austin Dillon late in the race and finished 22nd.

LOSERS

Chase Elliott — It was a lost weekend for the former Cup champion. Elliott was lapped during the race, failed to lead a lap and finished 21st.

Ty Gibbs — Suspension problems parked Gibbs after 81 laps, and he finished next-to-last a day after his car caught fire in practice.

Michael McDowell — McDowell was involved in several on-track incidents during the evening and finished 24th after running out of fuel, along with teammate Todd Gilliland.

Long: Drivers make their point clear on Clash at the Coliseum

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LOS ANGELES — So what to do with the Clash at the Coliseum?

The second edition of this exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum showcased beating, banging and 16 cautions in a 150-lap race won by Martin Truex Jr. on Sunday night.

A year remains on NASCAR’s three-year contract with the Coliseum — NASCAR holds the option for next year — and it seems all but certain Cup cars will be back next year.

With Auto Club Speedway President Dave Allen saying Saturday that his track will not host a NASCAR event in 2024 while being converted from a 2-mile speedway to a half-mile track, the Los Angeles area would be without a NASCAR race if the Clash did not return.

NASCAR is not likely to leave the nation’s No. 2 TV market without a race. 

A question this weekend was if the Clash would become a points race next year to replace the Auto Club Speedway date and allow NASCAR to have a new venue for the Clash.

“I think they should put (the Coliseum race) in the playoffs, personally. That would be perfect,” Denny Hamlin said straight faced after Sunday’s race before breaking into a smile to show he was speaking sarcastically.

Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano was emphatic in his response.

“No,” Logano said, shaking his head Sunday night. “We can’t do that.”

Why?

“You’re going to fit 40 cars out there? We can’t even make a caution lap without the pace car bumping the last-place car.”

Logano smiled as he spoke — then again he often smiles as he talks. He was not speaking sarcastically as Hamlin showed with his smile. Logano’s grin was part of a passionate defense.

“No. You can’t do that,” Logano continued of why a points race at the Coliseum is a bad idea. “That’d be dumb.”

Even in a celebratory mood after his first victory in NASCAR in more than a year, Truex was clear about his feelings of making the Clash a points race.

“Why would you screw it up,” he said, “and make it a points race?”

Just because drivers don’t like something doesn’t mean it won’t happen. 

But much would have to happen to make this event a points race.

Those familiar with the charter agreement between teams and NASCAR told NBC Sports that they weren’t sure that the language in the agreement would permit a points race at such a venue. With the charter system guaranteeing all 36 teams a spot in a race, it’s not feasible to run so many cars on this small track. Only 27 cars ran in Sunday’s Clash. That almost seemed too many.

Should there be a way to make this event a points race without all 36 running in the main event, there are other issues. 

The purse would have to significantly increase. NASCAR stated that the purse for Sunday’s Clash was $2.085 million. Last year’s championship race at Phoenix had a purse of $10.5 million. The purse for last year’s Cup race at Watkins Glen was $6.6 million. The purse for last year’s race at Nashville Superspeedway was $8.065 million.

If NASCAR made the Clash a points race, then the purse would be expected to fall in line with other points races. Of course, there still would be the logistics. 

But is it worth it to try to make an event something it doesn’t need to be?

While the attendance appeared to be a little less than the estimated 50,000 for last year’s race, it wasn’t enough of a drop to warrant abandoning this event. Is a points race at the Coliseum going to increase the attendance significantly? No.

Just bring this event back next year as is.

“I think it’s good for what it is,” Logano said. “It’s a non-points race. I think we need to go back to maybe only four cars (instead of five) transferring from the heat (races) … there’s just too many cars (on the track). I think that’s part of the issue as well.”

Then, to make sure he got his point across about if next year’s Coliseum race should be a points race, Logano said: “A points-paying race. No. I’ll be the first to raise my hand that’s a very bad idea.” 

But it’s possible 2024 could be the final year for this event at the Coliseum. 

If Auto Club Speedway’s conversion to a short track can be done in time to be on the 2025 schedule, then the Los Angeles region would have a short track and NASCAR could move the Clash to a new area to reach more fans.

That’s part of the goal this new dynamic NASCAR, which has moved Cup races to different venues in the last couple of years and will run its first street course race in July in Chicago. 

While NASCAR has made such changes, making the race at the Coliseum a points race serves no purpose. Just listen to the drivers.