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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AJ Allmendinger to return to NASCAR Cup Series in 2023

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AJ Allmendinger is getting another shot at success in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Kaulig Racing announced Wednesday that Allmendinger, currently chasing the Xfinity Series championship, will drive full-time in Kaulig entries in the Cup Series next season.

Allmendinger raced in Cup from 2007 to 2018 but won only one time — at Watkins Glen International — across those years. He moved to the Xfinity Series part-time with Kaulig in 2019, winning on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. He won twice in 2020 and five times in 2021 and is a favorite to win the Xfinity championship this year. He has won four Xfinity races this season, including last Sunday at Talladega.

MORE: Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

Allmendinger, 40, will drive Kaulig’s No. 16 car in Cup next year. Justin Haley will drive the team’s No. 31.

Chandler Smith will replace Allmendinger in the Xfinity Series next year.

“It’s crazy how the last five years of my life have gone,” Allmendinger said. “More than anything, I love this organization. I know the fans get tired of me talking about all the men and women of Kaulig Racing. This is not a race team. This is a huge family.

“There will be tough times and growing pains, for sure. But I love what they’re about, and they believe in me. I’ll be OK whether it’s good or bad.”

MORE: Chase Elliott atop NASCAR Power Rankings

Team owner Matt Kaulig said Allmendinger is “one of the best in the world at every type of track. He’s done so much for Kaulig Racing and our program. He’s a gigantic part of what we’re building.”

Team officials said Allmendinger has a multi-year contract.

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Charlotte Roval

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Sunday provides a final chance for drivers to advance to the Round of 8 and keep their Cup championship hopes alive.

Talladega winner Chase Elliott is the only driver who has advanced to the next round. That leaves seven spots available going into Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe holds the final transfer spot by a tiebreaker over Austin Cindric. At least for now.

William Byron is 11 points behind both drivers, but Hendrick Motorsports will appeal Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas on Thursday. Should Hendrick win and Byron get those points back, he would move into a transfer spot.

There’s just part of what to watch for in Sunday’s race.

Favorites to be No. 20

This season remains tied for the most different winners in series history at 19, but there are a few candidates who could become the 20th different winner this year on Sunday.

Among the favorites to do so:

Ryan Blaney, who came close to winning last week at Talladega, won the inaugural Cup race at the Roval in 2018.

Martin Truex Jr., who has four career Cup wins on road courses, still seeks his first victory of the season.

Michael McDowell, who is coming off a third-place finish at Talladega, has had a career-high 12 top-10 finishes this season, including top 10s in each of the last four road course events this year.

Will history repeat?

Last year, the four drivers eliminated after the Roval were Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell and William Byron.

Harvick was eliminated in the first round this year, but Byron (-11 to the cutline) and Bell (-33) are in jeopardy of being eliminated in this round again. Bowman stated Tuesday that he will miss his second consecutive race because of continued concussion symptoms. He will be among the four eliminated from title contention.

Bowman missed last weekend’s race because of concussion-like symptoms suffered at Texas. A decision on if he’ll be able to race at the Roval will come later this week.

Will chaos continue?

Consider what some of the former Roval winners have endured on their way to the checkered flag:

In 2019, Chase Elliott drove into the Turn 1 wall on a restart while the leader. He recovered to win.

In 2020, Elliott overcame a loose wheel to win for the second year in a row.

In 2021, Kyle Larson won after his team changed batteries and put the alternator belt back on.

Could a similar fate be in store for this year’s winner? Or will they have a cleaner day?

Entry lists

Thirty-nine drivers are entered including IndyCar driver Conor Daly, former Formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat, former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and former 24 Hours of Daytona winner Joey Hand. JJ Yeley will drive the No. 51 for Cody Ware, who stated that he would skip this event because of his ankle injury at Texas the footwork needed on a road course.

Charlotte Roval Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are IndyCar driver Marco Andretti and former F1 driver Daniil Kvyat.

Charlotte Roval Xfinity entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Saturday, Oct. 8

Forecast: Partly cloudy with a high of 66 degrees. No chance of rain during the Xfinity race.

  • 10 – 10:30 a.m. — Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)
  • 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (NBC Sports App)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Cup practice (NBC Sports App, USA Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.)
  • 1 – 2 p.m. — Cup qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 3 p.m. — Xfinity race (67 laps, 155.44 miles; NBC, Peacock, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 9

Forecast: Sunny with a high of 64 degrees. No chance of rain during the race.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup race (109 laps, 252.88 miles; NBC, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.