Evolution, with room for growth: Ryan Blaney 3.0 is here

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Last month, Ryan Blaney captured his first win on a non-drafting oval in nearly four years. In the interim, his driving ability matured, an evolution that’s given us three different iterations of a young driver who has plenty more room for growth.

Blaney 1.0: A promising prospect

Blaney’s development and assimilation were unconventional.

When he made his NASCAR Cup Series debut on May 10, 2014 at Kansas Speedway, he did so with just 20 Xfinity Series starts under his belt. In lieu of a full Xfinity season in 2015, he competed in 16 Cup races for Team Penske affiliate Wood Brothers Racing, 13 races with Penske’s Xfinity team and five races for now-defunct Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series.

Thus, his first season and a half at the Cup level, 2015-16, was comprised of rocky displays, a mishmash of a driver both raw and completely inexperienced relative to the levels he was seeing. Finally, a staying power surfaced in 2017.

Blaney 2.0: The restart specialist

Unbeknownst to most NASCAR fans, they’ve been spoiled with a recent influx of talented prospects like Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Christopher Bell, able to pass abundantly and efficiently, seemingly since their first days in the Cup Series — a rare occurrence says history, though like unappreciated. Blaney was promoted within the same time frame as this group, but lacked their early, heady passing acumen, proving himself a specialist in another key area relative to other young drivers.

After the initial 54-race culture shock, Blaney established himself as an elite restarter by age 23 and battled for the mantle of best restarter under the age of 30 with Larson and Joey Logano until the latter aged out last year:

Blaney insists restarts — namely, their importance — were instilled during his formative years competing in super late models.

“Those guys were so on it on restarts,” Blaney told NBC Sports. “If you weren’t paying attention, they took advantage of you. I was really young when I started in PASS (the Pro All-Stars Series, a late model series in the Southeast) and those guys had many years on them. I learned from an early age to be an aggressor on restarts, and I think it carried over to where I am now.”

He scored his first win at Pocono in 2017, outlasting Kevin Harvick on a 13-lap green-flag run. That run was kick-started when Blaney moved from fourth to second within two laps of the restart, his actions mimicked by Harvick, the driver trailing him in the sixth-place position. The narrative was one of an upset, but in reality, Harvick, ranked fifth in position retention rate that year, was bested on a late restart by a better restarter:

In follow-up Pocono races, Blaney’s win was misconstrued for what it was, and he was miscast as a trendy favorite on the 2.5-mile track. While restarts and short runs assisted in his victory, neither are norms for Pocono, which caters to the most reliable long-run passers, a trait absent from Blaney’s repertoire until recently.

Blaney 3.0: Efficient long-run passer

The 2020 season marked Blaney’s first as a “plus passer,” or a driver utilizing passes to score track position beyond the statistical expectation of someone with his average running position.

This was a monumental occurrence in Blaney’s evolution. If he could sustain an adept passing acumen on top of a restarting profile among the industry’s best, it’d make him nearly impervious on the track, foolproof regardless of how a race breaks. It’s the kind of progression that could unlock a legitimate championship contender and consummate favorite across all tracks.

He’s responded so far in 2021 with a better adjusted pass efficiency beyond a heightened expected adjusted pass efficiency. Through eight races, he’s winning 3.14% more of his pass encounters than expected, a surplus passing value that ranks as a series best. It’s supplied his Penske team 62 positions on the racetrack.

His most recent victory came at Atlanta, when he reeled in a dominant Larson on a 101-lap green-flag run to end the race. It was a coronation for a driver who’s steadily improved his long-run gamesmanship and traditional passing outside of the restart window.

Developing upgrade: Reliable finisher

Blaney’s Production in Equal Equipment Rating — a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his or her contribution — has seen a steady upward trajectory since his age-23 season (2017). He finally crossed into the 2.000 production bracket, a space typically occupied by the top 15-19% of Cup Series drivers each year, for the first time in 2019. His 2.750 PEER through the first eight races this season ranks seventh in the series, though third among drivers under 30, trailing Larson and William Byron.

He still needs to eliminate a nagging statistical anchor. From 2017-20, the difference in the percentage of Blaney’s completed laps inside the top 15 and the percentage of finishes in the same whereabouts saw chasms as big as 17% — in 2017, his worst season for results despite the Pocono win. He ranked among the six biggest underachievers each year during that stretch with as many as 16 top-15 finishes, based on statistical expectation, left on the table.

Over 85% of his completed laps this season took place inside the top 15, a range in which he’s finished just 75% of the time. With only eight races scratched off of the schedule, it’s early days; however, whether this pattern continues will underscore the sustainability of his current PEER, on track for a career best.

Regardless of this juxtaposition, Penske should soon consider a better approach to how it supports its young, well-rounded driver.

Optimized version: Organizational centerpiece

In theory, as Blaney evolves, so should his team. As of now, his maturation as a racer is exceeding his crew chief’s ability to defend or supplement his running position:

His first season with Todd Gordon as crew chief had to be considered a success, given Blaney, ranked third in speed, had the fastest car to this point in his Cup Series career while enjoying his running position defended at a rate 11 percentage points higher than the year prior, his first in the 2.000 PEER bracket. Gordon’s work during green-flag pit cycles — noted in the spider chart above as GFPC Offense and GFPC Defense, along with Initial Track Position (ITP), Surplus Passing, Restart Offense and Restart Defense — ranked in the 52nd and 26th percentiles.

For all the gains Blaney’s made in how he acquires track position, he’s been forced to endure frequent losses on pit road, both under green — he lost 250 positions across green-flag pit cycles in 2019-20 — and under yellow, as notably as his 2020 loss at Las Vegas and as recently as last Sunday’s penalty in Martinsville.

This season has been a considerable step backwards for the strategy output of Gordon, whose 30% retention rate on green-flag pit cycles ranks last among full-time crew chiefs. This is ill timed, more than neutralizing the efflorescence of Blaney’s ability to overtake, which ranks in the 93rd percentile or higher:

Penske as a whole doesn’t have the strategic capabilities of other programs that have poured considerable resources into the effort — none of the four crew chiefs, Wood Brothers Racing’s Greg Erwin included, are especially productive strategists — but the organization’s turn towards 750-horsepower tracks, ovals not likely to ever see a high volume of green-flag pit cycles, may diminish the need for good strategy moving forward. If that’s the case, Blaney is well positioned for future title runs, though his blossoming overall ability might not fetch commensurate results across the entirety of a 36-race season.

But it’s clear his talent is nearing or at a point when a select few winning drivers become outright stars, a slow burn we’ve witnessed since he was a 20-year-old debutant.

NASCAR Awards to air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joey Logano didn’t need much time to answer the question.

Who would the two-time Cup champion want to introduce him at the NASCAR Awards?

Racing icon Mario Andretti, Logano immediately said. 

And there was Andretti on the stage at the Music City Center introducing Logano, the 2022 Cup champion. Watch that and the rest of the night’s festivities at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock. You can order Peacock here.

MORE: See the red carpet scene

MORE: Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kim Coon co-hosted the show along with Fox Sports’ Kaitlyn Vincie. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions were honored. Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, whose father died hours after Gibbs won the Xfinity title last month, received a standing ovation and thanked the industry for its support.

The highlight of the night for Logano was having Andretti on stage to introduce him.

“He’s just been a great role model for me, not only as a racer, but as a person for so long,” Logano said afterward. “I had his picture on my wall. I looked at Mario Andretti before I went to sleep every night as a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing that he signed it to me.”

NASCAR Awards and Champion Celebration
Cup champion Joey Logano on stage with racing icon Mario Andretti during the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano and Andretti have gotten to know each other through the years. Logano ran a throwback car that honored Andretti at Darlington Raceway in 2015 and 2021.

But none of that compared to being on stage with Andretti.

“That’s still like a pinch-me moment,” Logano said. “It’s Mario Andretti. He’s the man. The fact that he knows my name I think is really, really cool.”

Catch the NASCAR Awards at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”

Brennan Poole joins Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for 2023

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Brennan Poole will join Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity season, the team announced Friday.

Poole will drive the No. 6 car for the full season. Currey returns to the team’s No. 4 car for the season. Currey scored five top-15 finishes last season for the organization.

JD Motorsports is planning to run the No. 0 car next season. No driver or sponsor has been announced for that ride.

“We’re full throttle here and getting ready to go,” Davis said in a statement from the team. “Bayley and Brennan are signed on and looking forward to chasing races and points next year. We’re actively moving along looking for sponsor commitments and for drivers and sponsors for the No. 0 car.”

“We’ve always taken the approach here that we want to go after the series with multiple cars, and that’s how we’re looking toward 2023. The new schedule is very interesting and provides new challenges to our drivers and team members.”

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

Friday 5: Will Kyle Busch become NASCAR’s Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The weight of an unfulfilled season, deciding where he’d race in 2023 and the impact on his Truck Series team are off Kyle Busch.

It’s back to racing for the two-time Cup champion, who seeks to reignite his career at Richard Childress Racing this season.

Busch performed his final duty representing Joe Gibbs Racing at Thursday’s NASCAR Awards (show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock) and it’s now all about helping RCR win its first Cup championship since 1994.

MORE: NASCAR Awards red carpet scene

Busch will be with Richard Childress Racing this weekend at Circuit of the Americas for World Racing League endurance events. Busch said the team has turned an old Cup car into an endurance car for the event. Last year, RCR won an eight-hour endurance race there with Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Kaz Grala.

Busch seeks better fortunes at RCR than what he’s had recently at Joe Gibbs Racing.

He has one Cup win in his last 53 starts — 14 drivers have won more races than Busch in that span, dating back to the July 2021 race at Road America.

His 17 top-10 finishes this past season were his fewest since scoring 16 top 10s in 2015. 

He was running at the finish in 29 of 36 points races — the first time he’s been running at the finish in fewer than 30 races since 2015. Two blown engines in the opening round of the playoffs led to failing to advance to the second round for the first time in his career. 

“It’s obviously been a challenging, not just this year, but the last little while,” Busch said Thursday at the Music City Center. “So, it’s kind of maybe a blessing in disguise, honestly, where it might just be time for a fresh start, time for something new, time for something different.”

He looks to future NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for inspiration.

Brady won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before  joining Tampa Bay and winning a Super Bowl in his first season with the Buccaneers.

Manning won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts before joining the Denver Broncos and winning a Super Bowl there in his final season in the NFL.

“I’m kind of looking at it as a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning aspect where they left great teams, great organizations where they won championships and they were able to win a championship somewhere else,” Busch said. “I’d like to think I still have that opportunity to be able to do that at RCR.

“I look at the opportunity with the new Next Gen race car as an easier move to make now with that vs. years past with previous generation cars.”

He says that because with the previous generation of cars, there was a greater separation between teams because NASCAR did not regulate as much of the car. With the the Next Gen car, teams have the same parts. Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano that his team still has much to learn about the car and maximizing setups. 

Even with his struggles at the end of his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch says he doesn’t go to RCR with a chip on his shoulder. 

“I don’t think I have anything to prove or I need to have a chip on my shoulder,” Busch said. “I just want to go out there and run well again. … I felt like we had a lot of strong runs this year. There were like six races I can count that we could’ve, would’ve, should’ve won and we didn’t whip is very frustrating. 

“We were so good at giving them away that I need to get back to I’m so good at stealing them and earning them.”

2. Special delivery 

Among the perks with winning a Cup title is getting the Champion’s Journal. Jimmie Johnson started the tradition after his 2010 championship. The existence of the journal remained a secret until 2017 when Johnson posted a picture on social media of him handing the journal to Martin Truex Jr.

The journal passes from champion to champion with the current champion holding on to it for a year and adding an entry for the next champion before handing it to them. Logano will receive the journal from Kyle Larson. 

“I can’t wait to read it again,” Logano said before Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “I’m telling you, it’s probably one of the coolest things. Jimmie deserves all of the credit for coming up with the idea. 

“I wish it started sooner. It’s so interesting. Some drivers are very detailed what they write to the next champion and some are kind of quick and simple. It’s very interesting to read it. It’s cool. It’s a real secret. It’s kind of like an unwritten rule, you can’t take pictures of it and post it. It’s a thing that only the championship drivers know and have read and seen.

“Every time I get it, I’m so nervous. I’m like don’t spill anything on this thing, don’t lose it. It would suck to be the guy that loses that. That would be bad. I’m putting it right in the safe.”

Logano won his first Cup title in 2018. He then gave the journal to Kyle Busch, the 2019 series champion.

“It’s something you put a lot of thought into, at least I did,” Logano said of what he penned. “I wrote a letter to Kyle. You put a lot of thought into it. It’s something that will be there as long as our sport is around. I hope so at least. It’s a really great tradition.”

3. Fun factor 

The day of last year’s NASCAR Awards, William Byron said he wanted compete in more races outside NASCAR in 2022. 

Byron, who seeks to make Sunday’s prestigious Snowball Derby Super Late Model race, has fulfilled his goal, winning, gaining confidence but also having fun.

“What I got out of it was immediate fun, sort of relief,” Byron said of racing various Super Late Model races this year. “It was not racing the Cup car. It was different. It was not as stressful working with the team and things like that because there’s not as much on the line. There’s still prize money and things, and honestly you’re there to have fun. I enjoyed that.

“As I got going in it, I realized how productive it really was for me to do it, how much I was learning. As I did it more often throughout the season, I learned little nuances that were helping me get back in the Cup car with a better skill set.”

That element of fun stood out to Byron. Cup racing is full of pressure with the multi-million dollar sponsors, expectations to win and all the people at the shop relying on the car’s performance. That’s significant pressure, on top of what any driver puts on themself.

“There’s a lot of guys that you are trying to provide for and do a good job for,” Byron said of Cup racing. “There is a weight to that. You want to perform for those guys that work non-stop at the shop. There’s just a much broader net that you are casting as a driver. Whenever you go to the short track level, it’s you and six to 10 guys working on the car. … There’s natural pressure with what we’re trying to do at the Cup level because it is the No. 1 motorsports in the U.S.”

4. Looking for a ride

Ross Chastain says he’s been “trying for years” to get a ride in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway without success but that hasn’t deterred him.

“I’ve met with the president of IMSA,” said Chastain, who finished second to Joey Logano for the Cup title this season. “I’ve met with team owners. I’ve talked to drivers. I just can’t find my way in yet. I haven’t found the right person yet to either tell me how to do it or give me the opportunity. I could show up with sponsorship and get a ride, but how do I get in as a race car driver? I haven’t found that spot yet.”

Chastain said he’s reached out to some this offseason with no luck. 

He said the prestige of the season-opening IMSA event (Jan. 28-29, 2023) draws him but he also wants to gain more experience racing on a road course — even with his win at Circuit of the Americas this past season. And Chastain is not picky on the type of ride he’d like to have for that race.

“I’m not even looking to be in the top class. I want to find a mid-pack Xfinity team of the Rolex and go run there and experience it and then just to be around those road racers that do it year around. I know I could learn something. … I just want to race.”

5. Indy 500-Coke 600 double

It has been eight years since Kurt Busch competed in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, the last time the feat has been accomplished. 

Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson are among those who have expressed interest in running both races in the same day but don’t appear to be in a position to do so in 2023 because of the limited IndyCar rides available. 

Roger Penske, owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said he could see Jimmie Johnson attempting it this year, and others as soon as next year. 

“It’s about having the car and the manufactures, whether it’s Chevy and or Honda,” Penske said, referring to the IndyCar manufacturers. “All would be interested to see somebody run the double. Maybe Jimmie is going to do it, which would be great. 

“He has the experience. He did very well on the ovals. … It’s my understanding that he’s going to run potentially the 600 as one of his races (with Petty GMS). We’ll see.”