Martinsville storylines: Keep it together


One can argue that Ryan Blaney should have a Martinsville grandfather clock in his possession right now.

The Team Penske driver has been a contender to win in his last three visits to the Virginia half-mile track. But he came away empty-handed each time.

The common denominator in those setbacks? Pit road.

In the June 2020 race at Martinsville, Blaney was leading when a caution came out on Lap 327. During subsequent pit stops, a member of his No. 12 crew went over the wall too soon and Blaney was sent to the rear. He climbed all the way back to second with less than 50 laps to go but went no further.

When the NASCAR Cup Series returned to Martinsville that November, Blaney rallied from an early pit road speeding penalty and was running second at the race’s final caution with 59 laps to go. But in the pits, he lost two spots and took the final restart in fifth (one car stayed out to inherit the lead). Again, Blaney got up to second, but came up short.

Then came this past April’s race at Martinsville, where Blaney won both stages and appeared set to fight Denny Hamlin for the win. But on Blaney’s final pit stop under caution with 47 laps to go, he ran over his air hose and took the pit gun with him as he left his stall.

The subsequent penalty sent him to the rear for the restart. Blaney finished 11th. As for Hamlin, he ultimately failed to hold off winner Martin Truex Jr. in the final green flag run to the finish.

As Martinsville hosts Sunday’s Cup playoff Round of 8 elimination race (2 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock Premium), Blaney and his No. 12 team are in a battle among those on the cutline seeking to reach the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7.

Kyle Busch holds the final transfer spot by a point over Blaney. Truex, winner of three of the last four Martinsville races, is three points back. Blaney’s teammate, Keselowski, is six points back.

All of them have multiple paths to get to Phoenix. As for Blaney, setbacks aside, he’s been heating up at Martinsville. He’s recorded five top-five finishes in his last seven races there. Going deeper, he’s also picked up three stage wins and scored in 15 of 18 stages at Martinsville.

That’s not bad considering how chaotic that track can be. But he and his team can ill afford another costly mistake Sunday to ruin their title hopes.

Wide open

For the first time since the 2017 season, all Championship 4 spots are up for grabs in the NASCAR Xfinity Series entering its final playoff elimination race.

That season, Christopher Bell (on his way to a Truck Series title) and Erik Jones (finishing his Cup rookie season) won the first two races in the Round of 8 to set up the elimination race at Phoenix Raceway. At that juncture, Elliott Sadler led the playoff standings with a 29-point cushion above the cutline.

Four years later, Phoenix now hosts the title finale (Nov. 6). And entering Saturday night’s elimination race at Martinsville (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN), two drivers hold bigger points buffers than Sadler. Reigning series champion Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger are both at +47.

Below them, but still above the cutline, are Justin Allgaier (+9) and Daniel Hemric (+7). Justin Haley (-7) has a manageable deficit, while Noah Gragson (-24), Brandon Jones (-40) and Harrison Burton (-51) likely need to win Saturday in order to reach Phoenix.

Gragson and Burton were the biggest losers last week at Kansas Speedway. Contact between Burton and Sam Mayer sent Burton into the wall while collecting Gragson. The incident cost Gragson 26 points to the cutline and Burton 30 points to the cutline.

But there is hope for both drivers.

Gragson didn’t get the clean day at Kansas that he’d hoped for, but said entering last week’s race that he felt his No. 9 JR Motorsports team had a “pretty good package” for Martinsville. Gragson has finished third and second there in his first two Xfinity starts.

He’s also posted an average finish of fifth across the three short track races this season, best among the remaining playoff drivers.

As for Burton, he won last year’s Martinsville playoff race after being eliminated from title contention in the opening Round of 12. He’s the only remaining playoff driver this season with a previous Martinsville win.

“We’re in a tough situation,” Burton said Wednesday in a media teleconference. “We had a really great car at Kansas contending for the win there and ended up getting in a crash that put us in a bad spot. So now we know we have to win to get into the Championship 4, which we believe we’re capable of. We’ve shown that we’re capable of it at Martinsville in particular… Just time to go get after it, have at it.

“This is going to be fun. These are the situations that — you know, there’s no great comeback without a setback at first. I’ve got a great group of guys around me, great leadership. (Crew chief) Jason Ratcliff has been in this situation before, having to win at Phoenix to have a chance for a championship – and him and Christopher (Bell) got it done, so I don’t see why we can’t get it done, either.”

Break’s over

The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series hosts the first of this weekend’s playoff elimination races at Martinsville on Saturday (1 p.m. ET, FS1).

Like the Xfinity Series, all Championship 4 spots will be decided ahead of the Trucks’ Nov. 5 season finale at Phoenix.

When we last saw the Trucks on Oct. 2 at Talladega, playoff contender John Hunter Nemechek missed out on clinching a Championship 4 berth.

Nemechek was leading on the last lap of overtime when he and Tate Fogleman made contact coming to the checkered flag. Nemechek went spinning as Fogleman held on to earn his first career Truck win – only to be immediately spun himself by contact from another competitor.

Entering Saturday, Nemechek and Ben Rhodes have the clearest paths to reaching the title race in Phoenix. Nemechek, the regular-season champion, has a 36-point cushion above the cutline. Rhodes is at +35.

The final two transfer spots may be the most hotly contested. Three-time Truck Series champion Matt Crafton (+10) and reigning Truck Series champion Sheldon Creed (+5) are not far above the cutline, while Stewart Friesen (-5) is not far below it.

Behind Friesen are Chandler Smith (-34), Carson Hocevar (-37) and Zane Smith (-40). They all likely need a win to advance.

Last fall’s Truck playoff race at Martinsville had two spots in the Championship 4 up for grabs after Creed and Brett Moffitt previously advanced there with wins in the Round of 8.

Grant Enfinger won the race to earn an automatic advance, while Zane Smith’s third-place finish was enough to claim the last transfer spot by three points over Crafton.

NASCAR implements safety changes after Talladega crash


NASCAR is implementing changes to Cup cars that strengthen the right side door area and soften the frontal area after reviewing the crash between Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece at Talladega Superspeedway in April.

The changes are to be in place for the July 9 race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Larson and Preece were uninjured in the vicious crash late in the race at Talladega. Larson’s car was turned and slid down the track to the apron before coming back up in traffic. Preece’s car slammed into the right side door area of Larson’s car.

Dr. John Patalak, NASCAR vice president of safety engineering, said the difference in velocity of the two cars at the time of impact was 59 mph.

“It’s pretty hard to find that on the racetrack normally,” Patalak told reporters Thursday during a briefing.

The severe impact moved a right side door bar on Larson’s car. NASCAR announced last month that it was allowing teams to add six right side door bar gussets to prevent the door bars from buckling in such an impact.

Thursday, NASCAR announced additional changes to the cars. The changes come after computer simulations and crash testing.

NASCAR is mandating:

  • Steel plate welded to the right side door bars
  • Front clips will be softened
  • Front bumper strut softening
  • Front ballast softening
  • Modified cross brace

Patalak said that NASCAR had been working on changes to the car since last year and did crash testing in January at the Transportation Research Center in East Liberty, Ohio. NASCAR did more work after that crash test.

As for the changes to the front of the car, Patalak said: “From an engineering standpoint we’re reducing the buckling strength of those individual parts and pieces. The simplified version is we are increasing the amount of crush that the front clip will be capable of. That’s all an effort to reduce the accelerations that the center section and driver will be exposed to during these frontal crashes.”

Adding the steel plate to the door bars is meant to strengthen that area to prevent any type of intrusion or buckling of the door bars in a similar type of crash.

Patalak also said that NASCAR inspected the car of Blaine Perkins that barrel rolled during the Xfinity race at Talladega in April. Patalak said that NASCAR consulted with Dr. James Raddin, Jr., who was one of the four authors of the Earnhardt investigation report in 2001 for the sanctioning body, in that incident.

Dr. Diandra: Brad Keselowski driving RFK Racing revival


Brad Keselowski surprised many when he didn’t re-sign with Team Penske in 2021. Penske was his home since 2010, and the team who helped him to a Cup Series championship in 2012. But Jack Roush offered Keselowski something Roger Penske couldn’t — ownership stake in the team.

Keselowski knew an RFK Racing revival would be an challenge, but also that he was prepared for it.

“I’ve been studying my whole life for this moment, and I’m ready for the test,” Keselowski said during the announcement of the new partnership.

A historic team with historic ups and downs

Roush Racing entered Cup competition in 1988. It didn’t win that first year, but the company collected at least one checkered flag every year from 1989-2014 — except for 1996.

Roush was one of the first owners (along with Rick Hendrick) to appreciate the advantages of multi-car teams. By 2003, Roush Racing fielded five full-time teams. In 2005, all five Roush cars made the playoffs, accumulating 15 wins between them. Their dominance prompted NASCAR to limit teams to four cars. That limit remains today.

Roush sold half the team to Fenway Sports Group in 2007. The renamed Roush Fenway Racing team, however, never reached the highs of 2005 as the graph below shows.

A vertical bar chart showing the challenges Brad Keselowski has in driving RFK's revival

The 2015 season was Jack Roush’s first winless season since 1996. By the time Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won two races in 2017, RFR was down to two cars. The company had four consecutive winless seasons before Keselowski came on board.

Keselowski is a perfect choice to drive the RFK revival. After all, how many other NASCAR drivers run a 3D-printing business? Or worry about having enough properly educated workers for 21st century manufacturing jobs?

“I feel like I’m buying into a stock that is about to go up,” Keselowski said.

Keselowski’s record

The new RFK Racing team started off strong at Daytona, with Keselowski and teammate Chris Buescher each winning their Duels. During that week, NASCAR confiscated wheels from both drivers’ cars. Despite concerns about the team’s modifications, NASCAR ultimately levied no penalty. But after the fifth race of the year at Atlanta, NASCAR docked Keselowski 100 points for modifying single-source parts. Keselowski needed to win to make the playoffs.

It wasn’t Keselowski, but Buescher who won the first race under the new name. Unfortunately, Buescher’s Bristol win came too late to make the playoffs.

Keselowski finished 2022 ranked 24th, the worst finish since his first full-time season in 2010 when he finished 25th.

In the table below, I compare Keselowski’s finishes for his last two years at Team Penske to his finishes with RFK Racing in 2022 and the first 15 races of 2023.

Comparing Brad Keselowski's finishes for his last two years with Penske and his first two years (so far) with RFK RacingKeselowski’s lack of wins since switching teams is the most obvious difference; however, the falloff in top-five and top-10 finishes is even more significant. Keselowski was not only not winning races, he often wasn’t even in contention. In 2020, Keselowski finished 91.7% of all races on the lead lap. In his first year with RFK, that metric dropped to 61.1%.

On the positive side, his numbers this year look far better than his 2022 statistics. Keselowski finishes on the lead lap 86.7% of the time and already has as many top-10 finishes in 15 races as he had in all 36 races last year.

Keselowski’s top-five finish rate improved from 2.8% in 2022 to 20.0% this year. That’s still off his 2021 top-five-finish rate of 36.1%, but it’s a step forward.

I summarize the last four years of some of Keselowski’s loop data metrics in the table below.

A table comparing Brad Keselowski's attempt to drive RKF's revival with his last two years of loop data at Penske

In 2022, Keselowski was down between six to seven-and-a-half points in starting, finishing and average running positions relative to 2021. This year, he’s improved so that the difference is only in the 2.6 to 3.6-position range.

Two keys for continued improvement

Ford is playing catch-up this year, having won only two of 15 points-paying races. Ryan Blaney, who won one of those two races, has the highest average finishing position (11.3) among drivers with at least eight starts. Keselowski is 14th overall with a 15.7 average finishing position, and fourth best among Ford drivers. Buescher is finishing an average of 1.2 positions better than his teammate.

Kevin Harvick is the top-ranked Ford driver in average running position, coming in sixth overall. Keselowski is 13th overall in average running position and the fourth-best among the Ford drivers.

Average green-flag speed rank is the average of a driver’s rank in green-flag speed over all the races for which he was ranked. Harvick is the fastest Ford as measured by this metric, ranking eighth among all drivers who have completed at least eight races. Keselowski is the fifth-fastest Ford, but the 20th-ranked driver in average green-flag speed rank.

The other issue, however, is particular to Keselowski: He is involved in a lot of accidents. That’s not new with Keselowski’s move to RFK Racing. Since 2016, Keselowski has been involved in at least eight caution-causing incidents every year.

What may be new is that he has a harder time recovering from non-race-ending incidents now than he did at Penske.

In 2021, Keselowski was involved in 12 caution-causing accidents. Last year, it was 10 (nine accidents and a spin). He’s already been involved in 12 incidents this year, the most of any full-time driver.

Keselowski isn’t too concerned about accidents. He views them as a consequence of pushing a car to its limits. His competitors, however, have called him out for for his aggressive driving style.

Neither accidents nor Keselowski’s attitude toward them changed with his transition from Team Penske to RFK Racing.

Except now he’s the one paying for those wrecked cars.

NASCAR weekend schedule at Sonoma Raceway


The NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series head to Sonoma Raceway this weekend. This marks the first time the Xfinity Series has competed at the 1.99-mile road course.

The Cup and Xfinity Series will take the following weekend off before the season resumes at Nashville Superspeedway. NBC and USA will broadcast each series the rest of the year, beginning at Nashville.

Sonoma Raceway

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees.

Saturday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 73 degrees. Forecast is for a high of 70 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race.

Sunday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 67 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Cup race.

Friday, June 9

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — ARCA Menards Series West
  • 1 – 10 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2 – 3 p.m. — ARCA West practice
  • 3:10 – 3:30 p.m. — ARCA West qualifying
  • 4:05 – 4:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 p.m. — ARCA West race (64 laps, 127.36 miles; live on FloRacing, will air on CNBC at 11:30 a.m. ET on June 18)

Saturday, June 10

Garage open

  • 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.  — Cup Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 3 – 4 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
  • 5 – 6 p.m. — Cup practice  (FS2)
  • 6 – 7 p.m. — Cup qualifying  (FS2)
  • 8 p.m. — Xfinity race (79 laps, 156.95 miles; FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, June 11

Garage open

  • 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (110 laps, 218.9 miles; Fox, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)


NASCAR penalizes Erik Jones, Legacy MC for L1 violation


NASCAR has docked Erik Jones and Legacy Motor Club 60 points and five playoff points each, suspended crew chief Dave Elenz two races and fined him $75,000 for the L1 violation discovered this week at the R&D Center. The team was found to have modified the greenhouse.

The penalty drops Jones from 26th to 30th in the standings heading into Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway.

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“We have been diligently working with NASCAR regarding the penalty and are working internally to determine the course of action in response,” said Joey Cohen, vice president, race operations for Legacy MC, in a statement. “We will announce that decision within the timeframe determined by the NASCAR Rule Book.”

Cohen will serve as interim crew chief during Elenz’s suspension.

Jones’ car was among those brought to NASCAR’s R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, after last weekend’s race at WWT Raceway.

NASCAR cited the team for violating:

Section 14.1.C: Vehicles must comply with Section 14 Vehicle and Driver Safety Specifications of the NASCAR Rule Book at all times during an Event. Failure to comply will be subject to Penalty pursuant to Section 10 Violations and Disciplinary Action.

Section 14.1.D: Except in cases explicitly permitted in the NASCAR Rules, installation of additional components, repairs, deletions, and/or modifications to Next Gen Single Source Vendor-supplied parts and/or assemblies will not be permitted.

Section 14.1.2.B: All parts and assemblies must comply with the NASCAR Engineering Change Log.

NASCAR also announced penalties Wednesday in the Craftsman Truck Series.

Crew chief Andrew Abbott has been fined $5,000, Young’s Motorsports has been penalized 25 points and Chris Hacker has been docked 25 points for a violation with the team’s window net.

Crew chief Charles Denike has been fined $2,500 for a lug nut not properly installed on Christian Eckes‘ truck for TRICON Garage.