Brad Keselowski

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Ryan Blaney tired of being ‘bottom of the totem pole’ at Team Penske

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CONCORD, N.C. — While Ryan Blaney says he’s not treated like it by his Team Penske peers, he knows how his performance output has compared to his teammates over the last few years.

“I look back and I’ve been the third best performing driver since ’16,” Blaney said during a media event Monday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “You don’t want to be that guy. That’s something I want to change really bad.”

Blaney, who is in the last year of his contract with the team, admitted being “the last guy” can “put your job in jeopardy.”

In his first four full-time Cup seasons, two with the Penske-aligned Wood Brothers Racing before transitioning to Penske’s No. 12 car, Blaney has three wins and 26 top fives. His wins have come at a pace of one a year starting in 2017, with two earned in dramatic last-lap fashion on the Charlotte Roval and last season at Talladega.

“You don’t want to be a one-win a year guy,” Blaney said. “People tell me that it’s better than no wins a year. You want to be level or above your teammates. That’s just a competitor thing.”

Enter Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Keselowski had 13 wins and 56 top fives in the last four seasons, while Logano claimed nine wins, 51 top fives and the 2018 Cup championship.

“I don’t want to be the bottom of the totem pole,” Blaney said. “I’m not treated like that. I’m not saying that. I get everything those guys get. … Joey and Brad are great. They’re both champions. I want to be better than those guys, that’s obviously the goal. It’s a personal thing. I need to get better.”

He hopes Team Penske’s major crew chief/crew shakeup announced earlier this month will do a lot toward making that a reality.

The 26-year-old driver enters his fifth full-time Cup season paired with crew chief Todd Gordon, who moves over to the No. 12 after eight years working on the No. 22. Seven of those were spent with Logano behind the wheel.

Blaney’s previous crew chief, Jeremy Bullins, is now paired with Keselowski on the No. 2 Ford and Keselowski’s former crew chief, Paul Wolfe, is paired with Logano.

“I wouldn’t say I needed a kick in the ass,” Blaney said of the shakeup. “I feel like when things like that happen, they happen so abruptly and it’s a big change for everybody. It kind of opens some people’s eyes. ‘Oh, ok we weren’t doing as good as we thought. We need to be better.’ They’re not afraid to make a change. It might get everyone hungry. I want to show I can do this with a new person. … Change can be good. If you’re going to make change, don’t make a little change. I’m a big fan of big overhauls. I think it will give everyone a big jolt of energy. We’ll find out in about a month.”

Gordon has proven what he can do with a young driver who has struggled to produce consistent success.

When Logano arrived at Team Penske in 2013 at the age of 23, he brought with him a four-year record at Joe Gibbs Racing that saw him win twice, in his first and final years with the team.

While they only won once in 2013, over the next three years Logano and Gordon claimed 14 victories. After missing the playoffs in 2017, they won five times over the last two seasons and won the 2018 title.

“Working with someone new is going to challenge me more to learn him and you kind of combine your two knowledges,” Blaney said. “You have your own language, right? You mesh them together and you hopefully understand and work on and both make sure you understand.”

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Friday 5: As season nears, a bigger deadline looms for NASCAR

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While the Cup garage opens in two weeks at Daytona International Speedway to begin the 2020 season, a bigger deadline is looming.

It is less than 10 weeks from NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of announcing the 2021 schedule around April 1.

Phelps made it clear in November what will be key elements to the upcoming schedule.

“We’re looking at where we’re going to have the most competitive racing that we can have, where we’re going to have full grandstands, and what does that market look like, is it a new market that we can service,” Phelps said the morning of last season’s finale in Miami.

Tracks that host Cup races — now mostly owned by NASCAR — were put on notice by Phelps’ comments.

“The two things that teams need: We need butts in seats and eyeballs on the TV,” said Steve Newmark, Roush Fenway Racing president, this week.

He stated how important attendance is for teams by noting the growth at Watkins Glen International, which had its fifth consecutive sellout of grandstand seating last year.

Fans at Watkins Glen in 2019. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“When I started in 2010, we didn’t take a lot of partners to Watkins Glen,” Newmark said of sponsors. “Now you take a partner to Watkins Glen in a heartbeat. It is sold out, the energy there. I understand the capacity at Watkins Glen is not the same but it has this feeling, and I think really what we’re trying from a team perspective, from a Roush Fenway perspective, that’s the most important thing.

“I want to go to areas that embrace having the race, that people show up in the stands, that there is a lot of energy. That’s where I want to take my partners. I want them to see their brand in that type of setting.

“Some venues can do that with two races. Other venues it’s been more of a struggle. I would love to see us try these new venues. There will be an energy around that.”

Among Newmark’s suggestions of where NASCAR should consider racing at some point: “Mexico, Canada, street courses, different road courses, different short tracks, look at it all.”

Ryan Newman, who enters his second year at Roush Fenway Racing, said that NASCAR should consider running a Cup race on dirt.

“I’m not trying to bash anybody, we just can’t keep doing the same things we’ve been doing,” he said this week. “We just can’t. We’ve got to mix it up as a sport. We’re working on doing that and I know that.

NASCAR Trucks at Eldora Speedway in 2019. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“But we’ve got to mix it up and make the fans want to see something different, want to see something new. A different driver. A different venue. A different type of anything. Not just a Next Gen car, that’s a part of it. … Going dirt racing can be done with the Next Gen car. If Junior Johnson was here, he’d tell you, ‘Let’s go race dirt.’ I’m telling you.”

Only the Truck series races on dirt, competing at Eldora Speedway. Cup last raced on a dirt track Sept. 30, 1970 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, North Carolina. Richard Petty won that race.

As the sport continues to evolve — adding a night race at Martinsville, a doubleheader weekend at Pocono, and the debut of the Next Gen car next season — the makeup of the schedule in the coming years will be among the biggest tasks for NASCAR officials.

2. A big deal

After winning the Chili Bowl for the first time in 13 attempts, Kyle Larson said moments after the triumph on the MavTV broadcast: “Its a pretty different range of emotions 365 days later. I feel like I’m going to pass out. I’m sorry NASCAR, I’m sorry Daytona, but this is the biggest (expletive) race I’ve ever won. I hope to win Daytona in a few weeks but this is bad ass.”

Larson, who lost the Chili Bowl the previous year on the last lap, later explained his comment in his press conference.

“It will be fun to watch the dirt fans and the NASCAR fans go at it and maybe get a text from (NASCAR’s Steve) O’Donnell and probably (Chip Ganassi Racing chief operating officer) Doug Duchardt,” Larson said.

“I think they understand the energy that this race brings to me and how much I want to win and have wanted to win it. Obviously, I’ve said in the past that the Chili Bowl, to me, is bigger than the Daytona 500. Obviously, it’s not just because of the size of the crowd and the purse of the Daytona 500, nothing compares with that I’ve raced in.

“On a personal level, just how close I’ve been to winning this race, I think that’s where I think this race has meant more to me. But now maybe after winning the Chili Bowl, the Daytona 500 will be that next race that’s going to mean the most to me that I want to win. It’s just been a great little run and hopefully we can turn this into some good momentum into the NASCAR season.”

Ryan Newman, who competed at the Chili Bowl Nationals for the first time, defended Larson’s excitement with winning that event.

“There’s 360 drivers, 360 teams going for one trophy. That’s spectacular,” Newman said. “I raced midgets races before where I won and there were 16 cars that entered and I felt really good about it. Going back to the Kyle Larson (comment), when there’s 360 (drivers) and you have been working … your whole life to get that trophy, it makes it special. It makes it more special than anybody who is out of his shoes to understand.”

3. Memorable win

NASCAR’s test this week on the Indy road course for the Xfinity Series will give those drivers a chance to accomplish a first — be the first Xfinity driver to win on that circuit.

Brad Keselowski after winning the 2012 Nationwide race at Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Brad Keselowski won the first Xfinity race at Indy (it was known as the Nationwide Series at the time) in 2012. That remains a special accomplishment.

“It sticks with you,” he told NBC Sports. “I’m proud of it. … It makes me … a little sad because I don’t get to compete in that series anymore with all the rules, it’s not feasible. So there is a little bit of sorrow I have with that question (of winning there) but it certainly was a defining moment for my career.”

Keselowski also won the final Xfinity race at Lucas Oil Raceway — where the series competed from 1982-2011 before moving to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

4. 15 and counting …

Call it a good sign for some, an omen for others or one crazy coincidence but each of the past 15 Cup champions have had an even-number car number.

The last driver to win the championship with an odd number on the car was Kurt Busch. He won the 2004 title (the inaugural Chase) driving the No. 97 car.

So, if one believes in signs, the even-number streak could be a bad sign this season for drivers with odd numbers, such as Busch (No. 1), Chase Elliott (No. 9), Denny Hamlin (No. 11) and Martin Truex Jr. (No. 19) among others.

5. NASCAR at Rolex

Kyle Busch is the only active Cup driver competing in this weekend’s Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway (coverage will be on NBC, NBCSN and NBC Gold: Track Pass), today’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge will have some additional NASCAR flavor.

MORE: A “crucial” year for Hailie Deegan’s career begins today at Daytona

MORE: Full Rolex 24 Hours coverage at MotorSportsTalk

The four-hour endurance race begins at 1:10 pm. ET (and will be streamed on the NBC Gold: Track Pass) and includes Xfinity drivers Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric. Also competing will be Hailie Deegan, who moved from Toyota’s development program to Ford’s in the offseason. She’ll spend most of her time this season running in the ARCA Series. Deegan and Briscoe will co-drive the No. 22 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Mustang GT4.

Matt DiBenedetto to test Xfinity car on Indy road course

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Matt DiBenedetto will take part in a one-car Xfinity test today on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course.

The test by the Wood Brothers Racing driver comes after the track and NASCAR announced last week that the July 4 Xfinity Series race (1:30 p.m. ET on NBC) will be held on the road course rather than the historic 2.5-mile oval.

Due to DiBenedetto taking part in the test, he will not be eligible to compete in the race.

While there could be a tire test at some point, there are no plans at this time for any additional testing other than DiBenedetto’s. New track owner Roger Penske said the focus of the test with DiBenedetto will be primarily to look at run-off areas.

“We will not be running at any speeds here next week, just with the weather,” Penske said during the announcement. “If someone thinks we picked (DiBenedetto) to run this. This was a car that could be available.”

The high for Wednesday in Speedway, Indiana, is not expected to top 40 degrees.

The July 4 race will be the fifth road course event on the 33-race schedule for the Xfinity Series this season.

The Xfinity Series has raced at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 2012. Kyle Busch has won four of those races. Other winners have been Justin Allgaier (2018), William Byron (2017), Ty Dillon (2014) and Brad Keselowski (2012).

 

Friday 5: Rule change is chance for drivers to go back in time

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Jeff Gordon marveled as he watched Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch run nose-to-tail or side-by-side lap after lap for the lead late in the 2017 spring Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.

“These are the two of the most equal race cars and one of the best races for the lead I’ve seen here at Martinsville in a very long time,” said Gordon, a nine-time Martinsville winner, on the FS1 broadcast.

Keselowski and Busch rarely seemed apart for a spell within the final 100 laps, whether it was Keselowski pressuring Busch or Busch doing the same thing by closing on Keselowski’s rear bumper.

It is the type of racing NASCAR hopes will return with the announcement this week of a short track package, which includes a smaller spoiler, that shares similarities to what was run in 2017-18.

What makes that 2017 spring Martinsville race stand out is how close Keselowski and Busch ran to each other before Keselowski won.

It contrasts the 2019 spring race, which featured a larger spoiler as part of the high downforce package used at all tracks. Keselowski led 446 of 500 laps that day. Runner-up Chase Elliott could not run close to Keselowski for long. 

Brad Keselowski celebrates his 2017 Martinsville win after a duel with Kyle Busch. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Keselowski explained to NBC Sports the differences in those packages and why the cars could run closer together in the 2017 race than the 2019 race.

“You’re able to brake differently, the cars were harder to stop, they had a smaller spoiler, so you had to really use a lot of finesse to work them down into the corner,” Keselowski said of the package used in 2017-18. “You didn’t lose the nose as quickly because you weren’t using aero as such an assist in the middle of the corner.

“If you had asked me earlier in my career if I thought aero would come into play at Martinsville, I would have said you were crazy. Same thing I would have said if you had told me that the cars would make almost 4,000 pounds of downforce. Those two conversations go hand in hand.

“The 2019 car, the easiest way I know how to explain this … at full speed at the tracks that we ran at, if the race track would have been inverted, the car would have stayed on the racetrack. That’s downforce. … It’s to a point where it could be a Hot Wheels track and we could run upside down. That tells you how much assistance the cars were getting from the air.”

The short track package will be used at all ovals 1 mile or less and the three road course events for a total of 14 races this year. Eight of the season’s final 15 races, including five in the playoffs, will be run with this package. The championship race at Phoenix will use this short track setup.

“Making this change is certainly a step in the direction of putting the racing back in the drivers’ hands and out of aerodynamics’ control,” Keselowski said. “More times than not, but not always, the result is better for the fans. I think it’s a win as a whole.”

2. Tire change with short track package

One of the complaints drivers and teams had last year was the lack of tire wear during events. Without such wear and tire falloff, drivers found it more challenging to pass, particularly at short tracks. 

With the lower downforce package at short tracks this year, Goodyear will construct a tire intended to wear more, said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing.

“We are going to make some changes,” Stucker told NBC Sports about the tire that will be used with the short track setup.

“From a traction, from a grip-level perspective, I go back to what we learned at the Martinsville test that we had there in July, what we learned at our Richmond test back in October. Granted that was in the Next Gen car, but we were able to evaluate some things and learn some things about Richmond and the same thing with Phoenix because we evaluated several different compounds. We got different reference points at those two tests along with stuff we’ve done in the past at those two race tracks testing-wise. We were able to formulate a plan to go a little softer than what we have been.

“Even understanding that the downforce is coming off, on top of that, we’re going to go ahead and take a step in trying to increase the grip level mechanically, which will also result in higher tread wear that, hopefully, will fall off.”

With a new short track package and a tire intended to wear more, will NASCAR need to use the traction compound (darker portion of the track) at Phoenix again this year? (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Goodyear will not do any testing before the first race with the short track package — Phoenix on March 8 — because there isn’t enough time.

NASCAR met with drivers, teams, Goodyear and others in Nashville before the December awards banquet to devise a course of action for the short tracks. That followed NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying before the season finale in Miami that “our promise to our fans … is that we are going to provide the best racing we can at our short tracks.”

One issue that has not been determined is if the traction compound applied in the corners at Phoenix Raceway last year will be reapplied for the March race. With a new short track package and a new tire, the traction compound might not be needed.

“Our opinion, and I think everybody’s is … (the traction compound) is to enhance the multiple racing lines, it is enable multiple grooves to come in at a particular track,” Stucker said. “We’re not in favor of just applying traction compound on a racetrack just to go faster. That’s not the goal.”

3. Decisions, decisions

Among the challenges for some teams with the short track package is determining how much wind tunnel time to devote to that setup and to the higher downforce package used at the bigger tracks.

NASCAR announced in October that organizations would be limited to 150 hours of wind tunnel time in 2020.

While the short track package shares similarities to what was run in 2017 and ’18, it’s not the same. Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations for Joe Gibbs Racing, said that wind tunnel time will be important for the short track setup.

Makar told NBC Sports that it will be a “challenge” to properly divide the wind tunnel time between the low downforce and high downforce packages.

Even with simulation programs playing a greater role for teams, Makar says wind tunnel testing is still vital.

Kyle Busch scored his second Cup title in five years in 2019 for Joe Gibbs Racing. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“You can learn a lot of basic things in (simulation) and kind of get your preliminary ideas and thoughts together and then apply them in the wind tunnel to get your final decision on how that change worked,” Makar said. “The wind tunnel, I think, probably is still your closest thing to the racetrack.”

Other key decisions for teams will come as the year progresses.

Teams will have to decide how to allocate resources in preparing high downforce cars, low downforce cars and also the Next Gen car that debuts in 2021.

“It does create a bit of a different challenge because it is that much different,” Makar said of the Next Gen car. “It’s completely, uniquely new to us. Just looking at the car and how things bolt together, it’s a big learning curve for all the teams. It’s not like over the years when you had a body change or an aero package change, it’s still the same car.”

Makar said one thing that will help is that with NASCAR putting a freeze on teams developing new parts, those crew members can focus on the Next Gen car.

Another key issue will be for any organization that has multiple teams in the playoffs — and even multiple teams in the final eight or the championship race. Go all in on a championship or work on the Next Gen car to begin next year strong?

“In my view, the obvious thing is (this year’s) championship is the first and foremost goal,” Makar said. “That’s what we have to focus on. That’s the next thing in line.”

4. His turn

The recent shuffling of drivers and crew chiefs at Team Penske could have some fans of Brad Keselowski feeling down.

Car owner Roger Penske split Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe, sending Wolfe to work with Joey Logano. Penske also moved Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon, over to be with Ryan Blaney. That left Jeremy Bullins, who had been Blaney’s crew chief, to join Keselowski.

So what would Keselowski tell his fans about now being paired with Bullins?

Jeremy Bullins moves over from Ryan Blaney’s team to be Brad Keselowski’s crew chief in 2020. (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“First thing I’d tell my fans is that Jeremy is the only Cup crew chief at Penske of the three that hasn’t won the championship,” Keselowski said. “The way I see it, he’s the next one to win one.”

Keselowski is focused on this season but he did tell NBC Sports that “I’m super proud of everything we were able to do as a team with Paul as crew chief and everyone else that was on the team at that time. I haven’t really spent much time looking out the rear window because I can’t change anything. So I’m looking out the front windshield.”

With a new crew chief will come new demands.

“I’m sure that Jeremy and the team are going to challenge me to be better,” Keselowski said. “I think that’s healthy. I’m going to do the same with them. I guess I view it as a complete blank slate. Our goal is to be the best and win the championship in 2020.

“What’s great is that we all have enough experience for that to be a realistic opportunity. If you combine that with our willingness to try new things, I think it could be a lethal combination.”

5. A name to remember

Cannon McIntosh’s assignment last fall was to write an essay about himself as if the high school junior was preparing a college application.

He felt good about what he wrote.

Until he got his grade.

A zero.

McIntosh’s instructor thought what McIntosh wrote was not true, that it had been plagiarized. No way, the teacher assumed, this student was a race car driver.

Cannon McIntosh (right) with Jay Drake, team manager of Keith Kunz Motorsports.
(Photo by Swikar Patel/TRD)

The situation was quickly rectified. Soon more than McIntosh’s teachers will know who he is.

The 17-year-old has been making a name in midget racing the past year and earned a ride with Keith Kunz Motorsports for this week’s Chili Bowl as a Toyota Racing Development driver. Keith Kunz Motorsports has won the past five Chili Bowl titles, including the past three with Christopher Bell.

McIntosh, who grew up in the Tulsa, Oklahoma suburbs and has to only make a short drive to the site of the Chili Bowl, won his preliminary feature Monday night to earn his first berth in the Chili Bowl Nationals A main.

He can’t wait until Saturday night’s feature race.

“I’ve raced pretty much all the guys that are going to be in that feature,” McIntosh told NBC Sports. “I know what to expect, and I know what I’m going to have to bring to the table, racing against those guys.

“(Kyle) Larson and Bell are definitely going to be the ones to beat coming Saturday. I’ve raced them before and I know what to expect. I’m going to have to be on my game. No matter what happens, we did well, we made the feature. I’m just hoping we can put on a good show, let them know we were there to fight.”

Xfinity Series to race on Indy’s road course

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The Xfinity Series will race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course this year, track officials announced Wednesday.

The July 4 race, sponsored by Pennzoil, will take place at 1:30 p.m. ET and air on NBC. The Cup race on July 5 also will be on NBC at 3:30 p.m. ET.

“As all the Xfinity drivers are looking into this weekend, I think we’re all going to be excited to be (in) the first NASCAR road race at Indy,” Justin Allgaier said during Wednesday’s press conference. “We’re all going to want to win that first race. I remember the first time coming here and racing in the Xfinity Series how exciting that was.”

Matt DiBenedetto will test different configurations for the road course on Jan. 22, Ben Kennedy, NASCAR managing director, racing operations and international development, said Wednesday. Kennedy said DiBenedetto will not be eligible to compete in the Xfinity race in July.

Moving the Xfinity race from the oval to the road course is the first major move made at the track since Roger Penske’s company purchased the speedway. One of Penske’s priorities has been putting more emphasis on the track’s NASCAR weekend, which has suffered significant attendance declines for more than a decade.

“We look at the (Indianapolis) 500 and the success we have and this race, we had many, many fans here as we started and then we had the issue with tires (in the 2008 race that led to NASCAR issuing an apology) and other things,” Penske said about why the focus on the NASCAR weekend. “We really have not had the ability to fill the stands the way we want. I think it’s a challenge for us. It’s something we want to work on. So it became a priority for us.”

Penske Corporation’s purchase of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the NTT IndyCar Series and IMS Productions became official Jan. 6. The sale to Roger Penske’s company was announced Nov. 4.

Penske discussed his plans for the track Jan. 9 on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, saying: “I guess my first grade card is how we do in the first year in making a difference at the track in 2020. We’re completely focused on that. We’re going to make several millions of dollars of investments before the month of May. It’s not to create more revenue or profit bottom-line, it’s entirely what can we do to make the guest and fan experience better.”

This will be the fifth road course event on the 33-race schedule for the Xfinity Series this season.

The other road course races will be May 30 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Aug. 8 at Road America, Aug. 15 at Watkins Glen and Oct. 10 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The Xfinity Series has raced at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 2012. Kyle Busch has won four of those races. Other winners have been Allgaier (2018), William Byron (2017), Ty Dillon (2014) and Brad Keselowski (2012).

The plan is that track officials will need about 90 minutes to convert the track back to the oval configuration after the Xfinity race on July 4 before Cup teams will be able to practice. The first practice is tentatively scheduled for 5:05 – 5:55 p.m. ET and final practice is scheduled for 6:35 – 7:25 p.m. ET. Cup teams will qualify the morning of the July 5 race at the tentative time of 11:05 a.m. ET.

Other announcements about the Indy weekend are that Florida Georgia Line will hold a concert on July 4, a fireworks show and new infield camping.

While there could be a tire test at some point, there are no plans at this time for any additional testing other than the test with DiBenedetto next week. Penske said the focus of the test with DiBenedetto will be primarily to look at run-off areas.

“We will not be running at any speeds here next week, just with the weather,” Penske said. “If someone thinks we picked him to run this. This was a car that could be available.”