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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