Josh Wise

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Without NASCAR ride, Blake Koch devoting energy to helping younger drivers

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Blake Koch‘s son Carter is 5, but he’s already developed some understanding of how NASCAR works.

“All he’s ever known is me as a race car driver,” Koch tells NBC Sports. “He’s smart enough to know now that when Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. retired and Matt Kenseth retired and Danica (Patrick) retired, he now knows what retirement means.”

At some point since last November, Koch had to explain to Carter why he wasn’t competing in 2018.

“He’s like, ‘Dad, are you retired?'” Koch says. “I was like, ‘No, buddy, I just lost my sponsor.'”

Koch is four months removed from his last start in Kaulig Racing’s No. 11 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series.

After two years racing full-time for the team, he was replaced by Ryan Truex, who brought sponsorship with him. Koch was left without a ride after making 213 starts in the Xfinity Series since 2009.

Koch has heard many of the same questions since November.

Are you done racing? Are you still trying to get sponsors? What are you doing?

“My answer is no, I’m not done racing,” Koch answers. “I can’t be done racing.”

At 32 and with 229 national NASCAR starts on his resume, Koch was left with two options when the 2017 season ended.

“Sit around and feel sorry for myself and read all the support and the tweets and let it (allow me) to think that an opportunity should come to me or go out and make something happen and have fun and utilize my resources and knowledge,” Koch says.

He decided he wasn’t going to pursue any ride this season. But Koch is not going anywhere.

In addition to a weekly appearance on Fox Sports 1’s “NASCAR Race Hub,” Koch wanted to try his hand as a driver mentor, helping young NASCAR drivers develop with the knowledge he’s accrued the last decade.

Koch jokes that his love of helping people may have been one of his “downfalls as a driver.”

“I helped other drivers,” Koch says. “If someone asked me what I was doing or about the race, I told them my honest opinion because I actually liked helping.”

Koch also observed a lack of people in similar roles in NASCAR.

“Every other sport has a coach or someone to lean on or someone on your side. Golfers, quarterbacks, everybody does. Except for NASCAR drivers,” Koch says. “Even Supercross racers have trainers and coaches and people making them better and better. But in our sport, it was just nonexistent, because there were no drivers that would retire and still want to be at the racetrack helping other drivers.”

Before committing to the idea, he went to former NASCAR driver Josh Wise for advice. Wise works with Chip Ganassi Racing helping their drivers.

“I did pick Josh’s brain a little bit on if he was happy doing it, if he missed being in a car and all that kind of stuff,” Koch says. “He still had the adrenaline rush, he loved what he was doing. … He saw results from the work he’s putting in. … You don’t want to do something and feel like there’s no results behind it and you don’t want to do something if you don’t think it’s going to be fun or rewarding.”

Through Chris Biby, a driver manager, Koch was connected with Matt Tifft, who joined Richard Childress Racing this season after a year with Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s also begun working with Truck Series driver Myatt Snider.

Koch and Tifft did not interact much last year, aside from greetings at driver introductions.

Their first real conversation came over a meal at Hickory Tavern in Huntersville, North Carolina.  Now they talk almost every day.

Koch didn’t officially begin his role helping out Tifft until after the season opener at Daytona.

“What I try to be for Matt Tifft is everything I’ve always wanted,” Koch says. “Confidence is key. It’s a big part of going fast, being confident in yourself. I believe that comes from hard work.

“I knew I had that feeling, and that’s something I implemented into Matt’s weekly routine, that when he shows up to the racetrack he knows he’s been working harder than every single person out there, and he’s more prepared than anyone out there. Then you have a little extra pep in your step when you’re walking in the garage.”

Koch says a “very small portion” of the work he does with his drivers is at the track. Most of his “two cents” comes between Monday and Friday.

On Sunday nights, he sets a schedule for Tifft and Snider, what to do with their workout program, race prep and what to work on in the simulator in addition to general notes for the race weekend.

Tifft says Koch is “very particular about every single thing” he’s doing.

“I set up specific workouts for him to do throughout the week and I tweaked his nutrition a little bit,” Koch says. “But he was already pretty disciplined with his nutrition. I set a checklist of things he needs to know every single week before he gets to the racetrack. Small details, even little things like garage flow. … When you get to the race track, the only thing you should have to think about is hitting your marks and running in a perfect line and focusing on your task at hand, not the other small details that are just cluttering your mind.”

Through roughly four weeks of working with Tifft and Snider, Koch has found the same satisfaction that Wise has in his role with Ganassi.

“When this opportunity came across to work with Matt, I could still race,” Koch says. “You have that competition, the adrenaline because you feel like you’re invested in part of it and I could help them out. It kind of helped fulfill the desire I had for helping people and helping someone make the best of their opportunity. I know how difficult it is to get an opportunity in this sport. When someone has that opportunity, I love nothing more than to see them maximize it. That’s what keeps me excited.”

Working with the two young drivers also keeps Koch on his toes in the case an offer materializes from a team.

“It absolutely helps,” Koch says. “I have to stay in shape and constantly watch, read and study data and work as hard as I was, probably working harder now than I was when I was driving. Because I have the accountability of Matt Tifft and Myatt Snider. Those guys are starting to push me harder in the gym, too. I have to get stronger. You can’t have your athletes stronger than the coach. I got to step up my game.”

Koch isn’t done adding things to his work life.

He plans to launch a new business in May, which he works on in the afternoons following his morning workout.

Koch isn’t giving away any details on that business will entail.

“The reason I started it is back when I was racing, if I poured as much effort and passion and hard work into my own business and product that I did into everybody else’s I’d be in a much better position right now,” Koch says. “I’ve learned a lot, about business and marketing and how to create a successful company, especially being friends with Matt Kaulig and seeing Leaf Filter grow over the years, I came up with an idea that I know people need and use and want, and I’m going to supply that to people here very soon.”

In the meantime, with the Xfinity Series off the next two weekends and Koch not making the trip to Texas Motor Speedway, he will spend his weekends nurturing his son’s dirt bike career. Carter competed in his first race last weekend.

“He was begging for it,” Koch says of the dirt bike. “I wanted to get him in a go kart or something a little safer but he’s just about as hardheaded and stubborn as I am.”

Chase Briscoe, John Hunter Nemechek break down Xfinity debuts

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Well ahead of his Xfinity Series debut last weekend, Chase Briscoe was given a list by Ford of all 33 races the series will hold in 2018.

The 23-year-old was asked to rank them by the races he liked and thought would be the most important for him to run.

The track at the top of Briscoe’s ranking was Atlanta Motor Speedway.

A native of Mitchell, Indiana, with a dirt racing background, Briscoe wanted to get the toughest race out of the way.

“To me Atlanta was a crucial one to run just because it’s early in the year … it’s the first mile-and-a-half of the year,” Briscoe told NBC Sports. “To me it’s the toughest mile-and-a-half that we go to when it comes to slickness. You’re constantly on edge and there’s tire fall off.”

Briscoe, a Ford development driver and one of three drivers piloting Roush Fenway’s Racing’s N0. 60 Ford this season, had been to Atlanta before. Driving for Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series last year, Briscoe started 25th and finished fourth in his first visit to the track.

On Saturday, he wasn’t the only rookie Xfinity driver trying to use past Atlanta experience to his advantage in their series debut.

Briscoe was joined by John Hunter Nemechek, driver of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet. The two drivers had very different debuts on NASCAR’s second-biggest stage.

Nemechek, 20, made his third start on the abrasive 1.54-mile oval. The first two, for his family’s NEMCO Motorsports team in the Truck Series, included one win in 2016.

“I think it’s all the same concept of being able to manage your tires and being there at the end when it counts,” Nemechek told NBC Sports. “If I was going in blind and had never run there or in an Xfinity car, I think it’d be a little bit tougher just from the fact of knowing how you have to run there, how much to save tires … the saving factor is definitely different for the Xfinity car to the truck for sure.”

Nemechek had “butterflies” on Friday, but he expected that.

“I feel like the weekend went very well from the perspective of never being in a Xfinity car until Lap 1 of practice,” Nemechek said. “I felt really good. … We were fast Friday in practice. The guys here at Chip Ganassi Racing brought me a really fast piece and as a driver that’s all you can ask for so it’s kind of in my hands not to make a mistake.”

Nemechek was eighth fastest in first practice and Briscoe was 20th. In final practice, Nemechek topped the chart and had the best 10-lap average. Briscoe had only risen one spot to 19th.

By the end of the day, they had varying expectations for how Saturday would go.

“I still had open expectations,” Nemechek said. “My confidence was high in race runs, but I’d never done a qualifying run until the first lap in qualifying on Saturday morning.”

Chase Briscoe competes during the Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Briscoe’s had changed significantly.

“I had every expectation that I could run up front and battle for the win,” Briscoe said. “After practice I realized it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. That was one of the things that’s humbling and very eye-opening how tough the field is and the depth of the field is so tough.”

The field was made tougher by the presence of four Cup drivers, including eventual race winner Kevin Harvick.

Briscoe leaned on Harvick as well as fellow Ford drivers Brad Keselowski (Briscoe’s former Truck Series owner) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for guidance.

“There’s a difference between being fast in practice and being able to race good,” Briscoe said. “So all of the guys told me, especially (with) Atlanta, you need to be tight. That’s one thing I’ve always struggled with in my career, I always like being loose compared to everybody.”

Stenhouse, who also comes from a dirt racing background, provided valuable insight in how to get around the track that hasn’t been repaved in 21 years.

“We talk the same language and some guys, typically the sprint car drivers, talk about side bite and forward bite,” Briscoe said. “If I want to get in the corner at a certain speed, I’ll actually start back peddling the throttle down the straightaway way before I get to the corner just so I can get to the corner at the speed I want and not have to go down in there wide open and lift out of the throttle and get into the brake. Stenhouse said he does the same thing, so it was just nice to reassure myself that’s what I should be doing.”

Meanwhile, Nemechek received advice from his Ganassi teammates, Larson and Jamie McMurray. He also got insight from former Cup driver Josh Wise, who works as a trainer for Ganassi.

“He’s definitely been a huge help over the offseason, being able to, I guess more of like a driver coach per say,” Nemechek said.

Wise’s advice?

“Have fun,” Nemechek said. “You want to make the most out of your opportunity. … Just being able to run all the laps and learn as much as you can.”

Nemechek ran all 163 laps. But he had to survive the two most hair-raising moments of the race to do it.

John Hunter Nemechek starts to get loose from racing with Kevin Harvick early in Saturday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway  (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The first came within laps of the initial green flag. With his No. 42 Chevrolet hugging the line at the bottom of Turn 4, Harvick nearly made contact with his rear bumper, getting Nemechek loose and then some, but he somehow saved it.

“It’s kind of a driver’s instinct of being able to save it throughout the years,” Nemechek said. “I still think there’s some luck involved there.”

Briscoe experienced the same issues with aero in the early going.

He “limped a little bit” into Turn 1 on the first lap when he could have gone all out and was passed by three cars.

“That was probably the first one where I thought, ‘Well, you screwed that up,” Briscoe said. “The whole race is just so much different in the Xfinity car than the Truck was in dirty air. All of the first couple of laps were kind of that for me because I didn’t know what to expect being in that much air and that many cars around you.”

Nemechek’s second scare came again out of Turn 4 on Lap 11 as he raced with Cole Custer and Elliott Sadler behind him. The No. 42 drifted up in front of Sadler, who hit his rear end. That sent Nemechek down into Custer, who spun and hit the outside wall nose-first.

Cole Custer’s No. 00 Ford after his accident with John Hunter Nemechek. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“I didn’t expect (Sadler) to hit me like that,” Nemechek said. “He had the run on the top side and Cole had a run on the bottom. I was loose as it is and had to use up all the track. They were being really aggressive and I can understand that. … Apologize to those guys. It’s kind of one of those deals, I was in the wrong spot at the wrong time and so was (Custer).”

Before the first 40-lap stage was over, Nemechek had to endure one more near-miss in the form of a shredded right-front tire. Pitting to replace it sent the Nemechek one lap down.

He was back on the lead lap following the stage-ending caution a few laps later. Nemechek failed to finish in the top 10 in the first two stages, but he kept his No. 42 safe and drove to a fourth-place finish.

Nemechek attributed his spotter Derek Kneeland and crew chief Mike Shiplett with getting him back on track.

“More or less having the spotter and crew chief keep me calm and keep me focused and make sure I’m hitting my marks and not doing anything crazy,” said Nemechek, who will next be back in the No. 42 car on March 17 at Auto Club Speedway. “Then knowing there’s a lot of race left and things can play out in your favor if you’re patient enough and don’t put yourself in bad position.”

Briscoe had an uneventful day at Atlanta before finishing 15th, one lap down. But he’ll take it. His result came a week after No. 60 teammate Austin Cindric wrecked at Daytona on Lap 11.

“It builds team morale if you come back every weekend without scratches on the car and it’s not tore up,” said Briscoe, who will drive the No. 60 next on April 7 at Texas Motor Speedway. “Obviously there’s a difference between tearing it up battling for the win and tearing it up running 20th. That goes a long way and I think Jack (Roush) respected that and he said he was proud. Fifteenth wasn’t what I wanted to run, but I think in the big scheme of things he was happy with it and hopefully we can continue to build on and get better and better as the year goes out.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoys new hobby, but not the spandex or getting flipped off

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He’s not a Hells Angel, not even a Wild Hog. He doesn’t wear leather or chaps and he wasn’t born to be wild.

But Dale Earnhardt Jr. is definitely a biker.

Admittedly, we’re not talking motorcycles, but bicycles. Earnhardt is the latest convert in the NASCAR world to riding with other drivers in a pack not just on the racetrack but also on the road.

Jimmie Johnson, Landon Cassill, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Josh Wise, Trevor Bayne and former driver Carl Edwards are among those in NASCAR who, in addition to putting the pedal to the metal in their race cars, also enjoy pedaling away both around North Carolina as well as near many of the race tracks that the NASCAR Cup Series visits.

On his weekly “The Dale Jr. Download” podcast on his Dirty Mo Radio, Earnhardt talked about what being a biker means to him – and how he has Johnson to thank for getting him into bike riding.

“Jimmie does a lot of different things, but cycling is something he really enjoys,” Earnhardt said. “That has really picked up in the garage. If you were in Daytona in the bus lot, every morning, my neighbor Matt Kenseth would wake up at 7 o’clock. He would meet outside his bus with Jamie McMurray. They would make a lot of noise and wake up Amy (Dale’s wife) and that would wake me up. They were getting ready to go on their bike ride every morning. This happened quite a bit.”

Now before you start thinking Earnhardt has become a seasoned rider, well, let’s just say he’s relatively new to two-wheeling – as in roughly a week.

“I noticed that a lot of guys in the garage are starting to do this, Trevor Bayne, they are going in big groups, riding around town,” Earnhardt said. “Kasey Kahne, just a number of drivers are picking up on this cycling deal.

“So I’m thinking, you know what, I am going to give it a try. Jimmie gave me a bike about a year ago. It’s sitting in my garage. Tires went flat, dry rotted. Had to get new tubes, new tires this past week. Finally, loaded the bike onto the plane to Atlanta.

“I told Jimmie, ‘Look, I’m going to meet you outside the track. Ain’t no way in hell I’m going to let anybody see me ride through the infield wearing this bike gear, spandex stuff.’”

True to his word, Earnhardt, along with Johnson, Kahne and Alan Gustafson – Chase Elliott’s crew chief – went on a 16.7-mile ride last week before things got hot and heavy on-track at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Given that Hendrick Motorsports has implemented a health and wellness program company-wide, drivers are encouraged to get – and stay – in shape, as well. Because he’s been working on his physical conditioning, including installing a gym with Bo-Flex and a stationary bike in his house, that’s why Earnhardt didn’t come away from his outdoor bike ride with saddle sores and the like.

“(It was) a lot of fun, my first ride, it was a good time,” Earnhardt said. “I’m glad I got through my first ride without any incident.”

But his ego was a bit bruised in the process.

“I did get flipped off in the first five minutes,” Earnhardt quipped. “For whatever reason, I was super nervous and couldn’t keep my hands from moving. I’m shaking and all over the road, and Jimmie and them are like six inches from the shoulder.

“I’m like, I can’t ride that close to the shoulder. I’m all over the place and I’m wobbling all over the damn road and this guy goes by and flips me off. I guess I kind of ticked him off. Anyways, I was surprised at how rude drivers are on the road.”

While he’s still not all that comfortable about wearing spandex, Earnhardt is now more determined and ready to take his new hobby to the next level.

“I’m in,” he said on his podcast. “(I’m) talking to Jimmie about getting some more bikes so I don’t have to tote one back and forth, which is a little bit pain in the butt.

“I’m buying more gear, getting geared up and ready to go. That’s going to be part of my workout regimen. It is fun, I’ve gotta admit. I’m still not quite over the self-consciousness of wearing the spandex, but I’ll get there.”

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Circle Sport and The Motorsports Group merge for 2017 effort

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Joe Falk and Curtis Key Sr. have merged their respective operations to field a single entry in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season.

The team will be led by Falk, who brings a charter to the partnership. Falk had been a part of the Circle Sport – Leavine Family Racing effort in 2016, which fielded a car that was split between Ty Dillon and Michael McDowell.

However, NASCAR viewed the alliance as Falk having leased his Charter to Bob Leavine. It resulted in Falk needing to use the Charter this season or sell it.

In 2016, Key also fielded a single car effort. The No. 30 qualified for 30 of the 36 races with drivers Gray Gaulding and Josh Wise.

Under the Falk and Key partnership, the team will field the No. 33 Chevrolet. Falk’s charter guarantees the team, with a driver to be announced in the coming weeks, will compete in every Cup Series race.

“It’s great to join forces with Curtis Key, I’ve known him for a very long time and know we share the same feelings about racing,” Falk said in a team release.

Veteran crew chief Pat Tryson will oversee the effort. Tryson has 541 starts at the Cup level and eight career wins. Throughout his career, Tryson has worked with drivers such as Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Kurt Busch, and Martin Truex Jr.

Tryson also previously worked with The Motorsports Group when the team made the transition into the Cup Series in 2015.

“It’s great to have Pat back with us, he was instrumental when we got started with our Cup program and we look forward to his insight in 2017,” said Key.

The team will operate out of The Motorsports Group shop in Mooresville, North Carolina.

Matt Kenseth uses two wheels to sharpen his four-wheel game

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With one championship and 38 career Cup-level wins, Matt Kenseth knows how to wheel his way around racetracks from Concord to Fontana on four wheels.

But the soon-to-be 45-year-old (March 10) native of Cambridge, Wisconsin is also pretty slick on two wheels, too.

In a recent story on Bicycling.com, Kenseth’s love for two-wheel riding was made quite evident. He rides a high-tech Cannondale Synapse Hi-Mod, wears a heart rate monitor under his jersey, and typically rides with friends including seven-time NASCAR premier series champ Jimmie Johnson and fellow driver Josh Wise, among others.

“We’ve been racing for so many years that when we get away and we go out and ride, it’s kind of a release,” Kenseth told the website/magazine. “The last thing you’re really feeling like talking about (while riding bikes) is (NASCAR) racing.”

While Kenseth will start his 18th full-time season in NASCAR’s top level in 2017, he’s only been riding a bike for about three years.

But he’s proven to be a quick learner, first mountain biking and then road racing.

“I started mountain biking a few years ago with my crew chief, Jason [Ratcliff],” Kenseth told Bicycling.com. “A lot of the guys at Joe Gibbs Racing like to ride mountain bikes, and Jimmie (Johnson) has a group; we started riding MTB Tuesday afternoons after our team meetings.”

Johnson has been one of the biggest influences when Kenseth indulges his two-wheeled alter-ego.

“Of the people I race against, Jimmie is probably the one I ride with the most time, and we’ve always gotten along really well,” Kenseth told Bicycling.com. “Where some people don’t care if you’re behind them or not – because they’re fast and they don’t wanna ride with you – Jimmie’s the guy who’ll ride with you all the time and if he’s in one of his days where he’s really fast and you’re in one of your days where you don’t feel so good, he’ll typically stop somewhere and wait.”

While he has no fear taking chances on an auto racetrack, Kenseth is totally different on two wheels.

As author Hannah Weinberger wrote:

“What Kenseth doesn’t do, though, is take risks. He’s signaling turns, staying out of the drops, and hugging the shoulder because he believes it safer. It’s a cautionary approach markedly different from the way he races (in a race car).”

Bike riding is more than just a passion for Kenseth; it’s also helping him keep his game sharp on the racetrack. He’s one of the oldest full-time racers on NASCAR’s top-level circuit and pedaling 50 miles or more at a time keeps him in tip-top shape both in and out of a race car.

Certainly you can’t stop the clock, and I think that also has been some of the motivation about me exercising more often and harder than I ever have before,” Kenseth told Bicycling.com. “As the number gets bigger, you certainly spend a little more time thinking about it and certainly, you know, fighting it.

“… There’s not many things worse for me than standing inside of the gym and running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike. Cycling is more fun. And I get to see a lot of different parts of the country I wouldn’t otherwise. And I’ve got a lot of friends and people I know ride as well so, it turned into a little bit of a social event, too. Instead of going to the gym by yourself, you get to see some friends, you get to meet and ride with a lot of cool people.”

Click here for the full story about Kenseth on Bicycling.com.

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