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

1 Comment

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

 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

0 Comments

The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

0 Comments

After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

 

 

 

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

1 Comment

NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

4 Comments

NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”