Friday 5: Ryan Blaney the student seeks to be the teacher at Martinsville

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After finishing 25th in the April 2017 Martinsville Cup race, Ryan Blaney studied how Brad Keselowski, then his teammate at Team Penske, won that race.

“I went back and looked at Brad’s data from that whole race,” Blaney told NBC Sports earlier this year. “What did he do at the start of the run? What did he do in the middle? What did he do at the end of a run with his feet, brake, rolling speed, getting on the gas?”

Blaney’s first three Cup races at Martinsville netted finishes no better than 19th. After studying Keselowski’s data, Blaney placed eighth at Martinsville in the October 2017 race and followed it in March 2018 by finishing third, winning a stage and leading 145 laps. 

It’s an example of how driver data, such as throttle trace, steering angle, brake usage and more, can prove helpful.

“To an extent it’s hard to teach you something new, but if you really work on it and it clicks, then it is great,” Blaney said of the driver data available to competitors. “That was probably the biggest one of night and day difference (after studying data).”

Blaney heads into Saturday night’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1), having finished no worse than 11th in his last six starts at the track. He also enters the eighth Cup race of the season tied with close friend Chase Elliott in points at the top of the standings.

Blaney has started on the front row in each of the last four races, winning the pole three times. He’s also led the most laps this season while he continues to seek his first victory of the season.

Even with that success, Blaney admits preparing for each race with the new car is challenging.

“A lot of it right now is trying to take as much notes as you can from Phoenix, Richmond, apply it to Martinsville, honestly maybe take a little bit at what we learned at the (Clash at the) Coliseum and apply it,” Blaney said this week. “Some of it is kind of shoot from the hip and you just hope that what you sim and what you engineer, kind of think up, you hope is close.

“I will say we’ve done a great job of being close unloading at all these tracks this year.”

By having the setup close to what Blaney needs, it allows him to run more laps in the abbreviated practice sessions. 

At Phoenix, he ran the most laps in practice, finishing second on the speed chart and second in best average over 10 consecutive laps. The result was a fourth-place finish that saw him win a stage and lead 143 laps. 

At Richmond, he ran 44 laps in practice, second only to teammate Joey Logano’s 49. Blaney was third on the speed chart and had the best average over 10 consecutive laps. That led to a seventh-place finish, his top result at that track.

Running all those laps helped Blaney adjust to the car at each track. He’s ranked among the leaders in laps run in practice since Auto Club Speedway, the second race of the year. 

“My biggest thing is just to have an open mind going to these tracks,” Blaney said. 

He’s also had to break some habits he had with the previous car. Those extra laps in practice help with that, but it’s not always easy.

Ruoff Mortgage 500 - Qualifying
Ryan Blaney has led in every Cup race this season. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

“I would say going to (Auto Club) and Vegas, that was really difficult because big, fast race tracks, you can wreck pretty easy at those tracks,” Blaney said of changing his habits. “The shorter tracks, it’s a little bit easier to kind of get up to speed just because you’re not going as fast, you have a general idea, sense of where you’re lifting and you can gauge the brake pedal a little bit more than running 190 in the corner at (Auto Club and thinking), ‘I hope this thing sticks, I hope I didn’t lift too late.’ 

“It’s just a little bit different. Muscle memory is hard to overcome, and I catch myself doing tendencies that I used to do with the old car with this one. Just have to kind of learn to kick those. 

“Some tendencies still work. It’s still a race car at the end of the day and you’re fighting the same things. You just have to learn to adapt, that’s the biggest thing.”

But going off into the corner at 190 mph isn’t what makes him most nervous these days. It’s off the track where nerves can strike most.

He founded the Ryan Blaney Family Foundation in 2018 and has partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association and UPMC Sports Medicine. 

Blaney’s grandfather was stricken with Alzheimer’s. The University of Pittsburgh’s Sports Medicine facility offers a range of services for athletes of all ages and status. That is where Dale Earnhardt Jr. received treatment for his concussion symptoms. Blaney’s father, Dave, also received treatment there after a severe concussion in a racing accident. 

Blaney’s foundation will hold a charitable event before the Coca-Cola 600 in May to fund a pair of fellowships at UPMC. It will be the first major event for Blaney’s foundation since COVID.

“Hopefully, this goes well and we raise a bunch of money for UPMC,” Blaney said. “It’s nerve-racking. I get more nervous planning those events than racing because it is something fairly new to me and not something you have a huge control over, you just hope people support it.”

2. Helping hand

NASCAR Hall of Famer Ray Evernham turns 65 in August, but he’s not looking to slow down.

“One of my mentors is Roger Penske,” Evernham told NBC Sports, “and he’s 85 and he’s still rolling.”

So … yes, Evernham is willing to take on another project.

“I would love to find a place in the sport for me,” he said. “I feel like I still have something to add. I don’t want to be 200 days a year on the road like I was. I would love to be able to find a way to work with NASCAR or (Speedway Motorsports) or race tracks. I want to be around it. I feel I have something to add. I’ve got over 40 years of experience, hopefully I’ve got something there.”

NHOF Class of 2021 Blue Jacket Ceremony
Ray Evernham talks with Joe Gibbs during the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2021 jacket ceremony . (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Evernham has had many roles throughout his career. He raced modifieds and had the nickname “Hollywood Ray” at the time. He moved on to a role as a crew member before he became Jeff Gordon’s crew chief. Evernham revolutionized the sport while winning three championships and 49 races in the 1990s, including a pair of Daytona 500s and Brickyard 400s with Gordon. 

Evernham led Dodge’s return to the sport in 2001 and came back to Cup as a car owner. His drivers won 13 times, including Bill Elliott’s victory at the 2002 Brickyard 400. 

He later moved into a role as a TV commentator, became a track owner and helped Tony Stewart start the Superstar Racing Experience (SRX), the summer series that debuted last year and raced at select short tracks across the country.

Evernham no longer has an active role in the series, giving him the chance to search for his next project. 

“I’ve done a lot of things in the business and development side,” he said. “I feel I’d be a good advisor … or a good project manager. What I was able to do with SRX last year was a complete combination of all those things I did. I would love to do with that NASCAR or something now.”

It would seem that there could be a valuable role for Evernham to play somewhere in the sport.

“I feel like I’ve always had an ability to look out into the future,” Evernham said.

Imagine the places he could help NASCAR go.

3. Looking ahead 

Erik Jones has taken a different approach since joining Richard Petty Motorsports last season.

Once a part of Toyota’s driver development program with Kyle Busch Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, Jones took advantage of the equipment he had, winning the 2015 Truck title as a rookie, 2016 Xfinity rookie of the year and 2017 Cup rookie of the year. He’s the first driver to win rookie honors in Truck, Xfinity and Cup in consecutive seasons. 

When Joe Gibbs Racing brought Christopher Bell in to take Jones’ spot for the 2021 season, Jones moved to Richard Petty Motorsports, which merged with GMS Racing before this season to form Petty GMS Motorsports.  

“Going to RPM, I knew it would be a shift,” Jones said. “I didn’t expect to go out and win races right away. I knew it was going to be a building process. I think everybody was on the same page as that. 

“I think that was just the outlook I had. I think that’s what kept me in the game, was looking to the future of what we can do to improve. I stayed confident in my ability, still confident in my ability. It was just a matter of getting the right people and the right people in position.

“I think multiple things in the off-season have helped that, merging with GMS, Dave (Elenz) coming on board (as crew chief). All these things were planned to help our program.”

NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 - Qualifying
Erik Jones is closing in on 200 career Cup starts. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones has been running better than he’s finished this year. His average running position is 14.8. His average finish is 19.1.

Jones’ best result this year is third at Auto Club Speedway. He finished ninth at Circuit of the Americas and was 14th at Atlanta, but he’s had three finishes of 25th or worse this season. Two of those results came after he was eliminated in an accident.

Saturday’s race at Martinsville will be Jones’ 191st Cup start and he doesn’t turn 26 until May 30. 

“There’s guys in this sport that have started after me and won multiple championships, and I’ve been able to be in the sport now for five years at this point and just continue to build to where I want to be,” he said.

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson didn’t make his first Cup start until he was 25 years old in 2001. Former Cup champion Brad Keselowski had two Cup starts before he turned 25. Former Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. had five Cups starts before he turned 25. 

“I have 20 more years in NASCAR if I want and if I get the opportunities to be here for that long,” Jones said. “That’s kind of the way I look at it and just know that time’s on my side. I never looked at it that way until last year, but I think you have to be analytical somewhat of the situation you are in and that’s how I approach things.”

4. Race lengths

Saturday’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway will be 400 laps, marking the first time since October 1956 that the track has had a scheduled 400-lap Cup race. The Cup races have most often been 500 laps. A reason for the change is the switch to a night event.

Earlier this month, Atlanta Motor Speedway ran its first Cup race with the superspeedway configuration, making the racing more like Daytona and Talladega than a traditional 1.5-mile speedway. The Atlanta race had 11 cautions and lasted 3 hours, 57 minutes, 14 seconds.

That race was 91 seconds shorter than last year’s Coca-Cola 600, which had 100 more miles.

This year’s Atlanta race was nearly 30 minutes more than what each of the last four 500-mile races at the that track were. Each of those four races had five cautions. 

Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president, racing development and strategy, addressed the Atlanta race and its length this week.

“I think race length is something that we’re always certainly thinking about,” he said. “To your point, that was a longer race than I think we had expected. 

“The racing product was compelling the entire day. A lot of side-by-side racing. A lot of hard racing between the competitors. I think it made it really exciting for our fans. Something we’ll continue to monitor as we think about the event and the lengths of the event. I think overall, certainly an exciting event, and a good way to kick off our season with one of the earlier events.”

5. Stage points

A look at the drivers with the most stage points this season (via Racing Insights):

74 – Ryan Blaney

64 – William Byron

62 – Chase Elliott

61 – Joey Logano

53 – Kyle Larson

51 – Martin Truex Jr.

43 – Ross Chastain

40 – Chase Briscoe

38 – Tyler Reddick

35 – Brad Keselowski