Analysis: Ryan Blaney suited for deep playoff run regardless of ‘momentum’

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The word “momentum” was used eight times in Zoom sessions last week between members of the media and the 16 playoff drivers. Half of them were in regards to Ryan Blaney, two of them from the mouth of the driver in question.

“Momentum and confidence are something that we have right now (with) the 12 group because obviously, the last couple of weekends, it really helps get that rolling,” said Blaney, winner of two races inside the last three weeks at Michigan and Daytona. “It’s good for everybody, not only for the driver but for the team as well when they have a lot of confidence in themselves and their abilities and you can believe that you can do it and make a strong run at the championship. That’s part of the game.”

While a good stretch of races just before the start of the playoffs can do wonders for a driver’s confidence, there isn’t actually a direct line between what occurred then and what will occur moving forward. The tracks are different, as is the horsepower level. And in going from Michigan and Daytona, track lengths suiting Blaney — all seven of his Cup Series wins have occurred on tracks 1.5 miles or larger — to an opening playoff round consisting of Darlington and Richmond has the potential for a striking juxtaposition.

Darlington delivered the blow of a 22nd-place finish. Saturday’s race at Richmond doesn’t bode better, but Blaney is cautiously optimistic due to improved performance there in the spring.

“Richmond is not a place we’ve run spectacular at in the past,” Blaney said. “At Richmond, we ran top five in the first stage and kind of got away from the handling and ended up running 11th and having just a good solid day there.”

“Once you do have a solid race at a track you might not have had good runs at before, it gives you the mindset of ‘OK, I haven’t run great here in the past, but we had a good race. Let’s work on that.’ Now, I kind of have an idea of what I need to feel in the car, how I need to drive the racetrack, and what I need to work on throughout the race to try to stay up there and be competitive.”

Barring a poor performance unworthy of many points, it’s likely Blaney will advance to the next round, thanks in part to the cushion he built across the eight-race stretch before the start of the playoffs that culminated in back-to-back wins.

That was the truest reward of a run that also saw Blaney score high finishes on a variety of track types — second on the Indianapolis road course and a pair of fifth-place finishes at 1-mile New Hampshire and 1.5-mile Atlanta — that showcased the driver’s slow-burn growth into a well-rounded competitor.

But that isn’t the reason he’s well suited for a long playoff run. He’s well suited for a long playoff run because recent performance at the tracks comprising the playoff schedule suggests such a thing, independent of the eight-race race run that concluded the regular season. His spider chart, comparing him to other playoff drivers on playoff tracks in 2021, insists he’s one of the best position defenders on restarts with three other paths to track position hovering near average:

And to be clear, there’s nothing mind-blowing about his statistical profile aside from his restart defense (in the 81st percentile, with only Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin ranking higher), but when paired with his average median lap rank this season on playoff tracks (fifth with Talladega omitted), he makes for a tough out, with green-flag pit cycles standing as his team’s biggest vulnerability.

Unsurprisingly, the driver’s yearlong production skews towards races befitting his strength. In events ending with a late restart, his Production in Equal Equipment Rating — a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in effort to isolate his contribution — ranks second among all drivers. In races without a late restart, his PEER ranks 10th.

Until Blaney (and his Penske team) can prove viable in every race-shaping scenario at every track with playoff representation, he is a championship sleeper, not an outright favorite. While that seems like a jab, it’s actually a good place to be — not many playoff teams can claim themselves as outside favorites without the assistance of some fortuitous bounces — but it was a designation that would’ve been there despite his run to end the regular season.

Blaney acknowledges nothing changed, procedurally or competitively, that would’ve necessitated the team’s perceived breakout.

“You know what? I don’t think I can really point out anything in particular (that changed) over the last month and a half, two months that we’ve been running pretty good,” Blaney said. “Just everything has been kind of clicking and going well.”

A run past the opening round — where he was eliminated from the playoffs last season — would provide him with tracks favorable by different measures. Martinsville (66.67%) and Las Vegas (57.14%) were home to two of his best passing performances (per his adjusted pass efficiency, measuring the percentage of pass encounters going in his favor), while his most recent races on each of the final five tracks on the playoff schedule saw him with top-five speed based on timing and scoring data.

A stat profile containing no weakness is rare in NASCAR. But in its stead, a driver with strong suits on the majority of playoff tracks could do fine in blazing a pathway to the title. Blaney, at the very least, can make that claim. How it manifests in tangible results will dictate its reality as a cogent championship plan.

“I think it’s been nice to finish out the regular season strong, especially with two wins back-to-back right before the start of the playoffs,” Blaney said. “That’s something I haven’t really had in my other playoff attempts is really a lot of bonus points, and not a lot to really have in your back pocket in case you have a bad race or just kind of an extra cushion, so that stuff is nice to have. But really the focus is the same.

“It’s definitely a better position to be in on our side than where we have been in year’s past. You just hope to utilize it.”

Where are they now? Scott Riggs races with son, Layne

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Scott Riggs, who raced for 15 years in NASCAR’s top three national series, now is guiding the racing career of his 20-year-old son, Layne.

And things are going well.

Layne won this year’s NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series Late Model championship, scoring 16 wins in 43 starts and edging former series champion Peyton Sellers by four points for the title.

Riggs thus became the youngest champion in Weekly Series history.

“It all started when Layne was 10 years old, mostly just something to entertain him and to have some fun,” Scott told NBC Sports. “But it’s turned into a full-fledged job. My life and plate have been full.”

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes

The Riggs family’s race shop is located in Bahama, North Carolina, Riggs’ home base during his NASCAR career. Scott describes himself as the “truck driver, spotter, crew chief and in-shop mechanic.”

“I am very tired,” he said.

The team, which depends on volunteers, didn’t plan to race in so many events this season, but when Layne started the year with a string of victories, it made sense to chase the national championship and give him a chance to be the youngest winner ever.

“To chase it that hard and be that close and then to win it, it was very exhausting,” Scott said. “It was a very big relief to finish the year.”

Success on short tracks resulted in Layne racing in three Camping World Truck Series events this year with Halmar Racing. He had a best finish of seventh at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in his series debut.

MORE: Snowball Derby attracts top NASCAR drivers

Scott Riggs ended his NASCAR driving career in 2014 in the Truck Series. He won five Truck races and four Xfinity races and ran 208 Cup races without a win. He made his Truck debut in 1999, moved to Xfinity in 2002 (winning Rookie of the Year) and then to Cup in 2004.

Riggs, now 51, raced in the Cup Series from 2004-13 with stops at MB2 Motorsports and with teams owned by Gene Haas, Tommy Baldwin and Ray Evernham, among others. He had four top-five finishes.

“I think I was very fortunate and the timing was right for me to move up through the ranks and get so many good opportunities,” Riggs said. “I raced late models for a long time, and then all of a sudden I got the opportunity to get in a truck. Won some races and poles and won races and poles in Xfinity.”

MORE: Jody Ridley’s upset for the ages

He ran out of chances in Cup as team models shifted, including some downsizing and mergers.

“I felt like I couldn’t get an opportunity that I had worked for and earned,” Riggs said. “It was hard for me. I was bitter for a year or so. But I look back, and a realization came over me that I was fortunate to have that time with my kids when they were at the right ages. I got to watch them do their things and just be the dad I wanted to be — not being gone four out of every seven days racing.

“I don’t think I’d have the relationship I have today with my kids if I had had a longer time in the sport.”

 

 

NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes through the years

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The best quotes from drivers and others involved in NASCAR competition often come in the heat of the moment — after a crash or a close finish or a controversial decision by officials.

NASCAR’s history is filled with memorable quotes from drivers who won races to drivers who watched wins slip away to officials caught in a moment of history.

Here’s a look at 10 that stand out:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. “I didn’t mean to turn him around. I meant to rattle his cage, though.” — Dale Earnhardt, describing how he didn’t mean to wreck Terry Labonte after he wrecked Labonte on the last lap at Bristol Motor Speedway to win the Aug. 28, 1999 race.

2. “They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass. There’s no way to get around that.” — Kevin Harvick, Feb. 21, 2010, offering his opinion on why Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team won so many races after Johnson outran him to win at Auto Club Speedway.

MORE: An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley wins at Dover

3. “It’s a stump-puller.” — Sterling Marlin, emphasizing the strength of his engine after he won the Daytona 500 Feb. 19, 1995.

4. “It’s probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do.” — Joey Logano, talking about Kevin Harvick after they were involved in a late-race crash at Pocono Raceway June 6, 2010. Harvick’s wife, DeLana, often wore a firesuit similar to those worn by team members during races.

5. “Do you have a brother?” — Ward Burton, responding to a reporter who asked if it was tougher to finish second because the race winner was his brother, Jeff, March 7, 1999 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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6. “I couldn’t hear him. He’s got that little yap-yap mouth. I couldn’t tell what he was saying.” — Ricky Rudd, commenting on what Kevin Harvick said to him after they wrecked at Richmond Raceway, Sept. 6, 2003.

7. “We can’t race with tears in our eyes.” — team owner Robert Yates, explaining why his team would not participate in the next week’s race after its driver, Davey Allison, was killed in a helicopter crash, July 1993.

8. “He’d have to toast everyone with milk.” — Dale Earnhardt, commenting on the celebratory drink choice Jeff Gordon might make if he ever won the Cup championship. After he won the 1995 Cup title, Gordon followed through, toasting his championship with a glass of milk at the awards banquet.

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9. “You know they say there’s talkers and doers. I’ve done this twice.” — Tony Stewart, winning the pre-race trash-talk contest with Carl Edwards prior to the 2011 race for the championship. Stewart had won the title in 2002 and 2005 and notched another over Edwards in 2011.

10. “This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make, but after the accident in Turn 4 of the Daytona 500 we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” — NASCAR President Mike Helton, confirming Earnhardt’s death at Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 18, 2001.

Honorable mentions: David Pearson, after being told that Richard Petty had said Pearson was the best driver he ever raced against: “I agree with him.” … CBS broadcaster Ken Squier, calling the famous finish of the 1979 Daytona 500: “And there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison! The tempers, overflowing. They are angry. They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat.” … NASCAR founder Bill France, providing a unique ending to a pre-race prayer after temporarily forgetting to use Amen: “Sincerely, Bill France.”

Snowball Derby entry list includes NASCAR Cup, Xfinity, Truck drivers

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Four Cup drivers are among those entered for Sunday’s 55th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

The Cup drivers entered are former series champion Brad Keselowski, playoff competitor William Byron, two-time Southern 500 winner Erik Jones and incoming Cup rookie Noah Gragson, who advanced to the Xfinity title race this year.

Also entered: Josh Berry, who competed in the Xfinity championship race this year, and Ty Majeski, who competed in the Truck championship race this year.

Majeski won the 2020 Snowball Derby. Gragson won the race in 2018. Jones won the event in 2012 and ’13.

Others entered include:

Chandler Smith, who won the 2021 Snowball Derby and will drive for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2023, is listed on the entry list but stated on social media he will not be competing.

The Snowball Derby is among the more prestigious Super Late Model races on the calendar and coming after the NASCAR season makes it easier for more Cup, Xfinity and Truck competitors to take part in the event.

Qualifying takes place Saturday. The Snowball Derby is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET Sunday. Racing America will stream Sunday’s race for $49.99. A three-day viewing pass can be purchased for $74.99.

 

 

An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley’s 1981 victory at Dover

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NASCAR’s history is sprinkled with upsets, from unlikely winners riding the Talladega draft to short tracks that yielded unexpected wins when favored leaders crashed on the final lap.

Survey the list of surprise winners over the decades, and Jody Ridley’s name likely will stand out.

On May 17, 1981, two days shy of his 39th birthday, Ridley won a 500-mile race at Dover Motor Speedway in Delaware. It was the only victory of Ridley’s Cup career and the only win scored by Virginia team owner Junie Donlavey, who participated in the Cup Series for 45 years, with 863 starts.

Donlavey’s team was perpetually underfunded, and his drivers often raced with tired, overused engines and tires that had too many laps. He survived with a mostly volunteer crew and enough sponsorship to carry him from race to race. Rival drivers and team owners considered Donlavey one of the most popular residents of NASCAR garage areas across those many years, but he rarely had the chance to reach for victory lane.

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On that spring day at Dover, one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks, everything fell the right way. Many of the tour’s leading drivers parked with engine or overheating problems, and the day’s best car – the Wood Brothers entry driven by Neil Bonnett — was sidelined with an engine issue late in the race after leading 404 laps.

Ridley, running a steady race, benefited from an unusual day at Dover. The race had only two cautions, and the final 471 laps of 500 were run under green-flag conditions. A general lack of cautions prevented top teams from changing tires frequently, putting Ridley, who was used to running tires longer than normal, on better footing.

When Cale Yarborough left the race with engine trouble 20 laps from the finish, Ridley inherited the lead — he had been two laps down to Yarborough — and led the rest of the way. He won by 22 seconds over Bobby Allison, who was the only other driver on the lead lap. Dale Earnhardt finished third, a lap down. Illustrating the problems experienced by many in the field — not an unusual result in those days — was the fact that the fourth-place driver, D.K. Ulrich, was nine laps off the lead pace.

Ridley drove into Victory Lane for the first time, much to the delight of Donlavey’s crew.

“Junie took it all in stride,” Ridley, now 80, told NBC Sports. “He wasn’t as excited as the team guys were. Junie was the type of guy who didn’t want to cash in on other people’s bad luck. He kind of felt sorry for the guys who blew up. That’s just the way he was.

“For me, it was the highlight of my career. Once I got into Cup racing, I knew we probably wouldn’t do much winning because we didn’t have the equipment. It was icing on the cake to win that one.”

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Jody’s son Anthony, then 22 years old, was listening to the race via radio in Chatsworth, Georgia, where the family lived.

“I was upstairs at my girlfriend’s house, and I think I bounced all over the upstairs and then floated down to the first floor,” Anthony said. “It was all pretty cool. Dad called home. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t get real excited about anything, but he was happy.”

The win paid $22,560. Ridley’s cut from the check (40 percent, generally standard in those days) was $9,024, a nice payday but not Ridley’s biggest in Cup. He would win more for finishing in the top 10 in the Daytona 500.

“We were having a good day,” Ridley said, “but I never thought about winning it. We just didn’t have the cars. But we stayed in the hunt, and the other teams couldn’t get too many new tires, and Junie had put a different gear in the car. Normally he would put in a taller gear and drop the RPMs down (to protect the engine), and you couldn’t keep up. For some reason that day, he didn’t. And it paid off.”

Before joining the Cup tour full time in 1980 at age 37, Ridley had established himself as one of the top short-track drivers in the country. Across the South, at top Eastern Seaboard tracks and into the Midwest, a visit by Ridley usually meant a tough night for the locals.

MORE: Five laps that impacted Cup season

Ridley’s older brother, Biddle, and Anthony kept the Ridley short-track cars running.

“We did all that together for 36 years,” said Anthony, who started changing tires during pit stops at the age of 14. “It was how we made a living, but trying to feed three families out of a race car is tough.”

Ridley still lives in Chatsworth, where his 1981 victory was a sports highlight for years.

“He can’t hear well, but he’s still tough as a pine knot,” Anthony said.