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Inside look at Richard Petty Motorsports’ Bristol game plan

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Dustin Long is spending this week with Richard Petty Motorsports to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at how a team prepares for a race. He will be with the team at the shop and at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend. Watch for his stories beginning today and running through Sunday.

WELCOME, N.C. — Tuesday’s competition meeting could have been held anywhere at Richard Petty Motorsports and often is.

Sometimes it is held in crew chief Drew Blickensderfer’s cozy office where a picture of Richard Petty and Dale Inman from Martinsville in 1971 watches over the room.

Cars on the shop floor at Richard Petty Motorsports. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Sometimes the meeting can be held on the shop floor where some of the team’s 12 cars are in various stages of dress, including the car — still in its primer black — that Bubba Wallace will race Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Tuesday, the meeting took place in a conference room in the front of the 20,000-square foot building that sits on the Richard Childress Racing complex.

Outside the room along a narrow hallway is a picture of a young Petty from about 60 years ago. NASCAR’s Elvis stands with his right hand in his back pocket and left hand leaning on the hood of a No. 43 convertible that Inman, who walks by, says is from Darlington in the late 1950s. Petty wears a white open-face helmet and the driver’s uniform of the day, a striped button down shirt with the sleeves rolled to his elbows, jeans and boots.

Just a few feet from that picture, Wallace — the future of RPM — leans back in a leather office chair in his uniform of the day, a blue Air Force T-shirt, dark jeans and sneakers. Blickensderfer sits across from Wallace in the conference room. Engineer Derek Stamets is to the right of Blickensderfer, who looks over notes on his laptop.

Sometimes there are a few more who sit in on the meeting but not many for this single-car team, which has 12 people working on the cars at the track and nine who solely work on the cars at the shop.

This is a pivotal time for Richard Petty Motorsports. While it has had sponsorship from World Wide Technology, STP, Click n’ Close and the U.S. Air Force, among others, the team does not have a primary sponsor for seven of the remaining 13 Cup races, including this weekend at Bristol. For those races, the car will be adorned in the team’s Petty blue and Day Glo orange with the logos of Medallion Bank and Petty’s Garage, companies operated by team owners Andrew Murstein and Petty.

Mechanic Joey Forgette (left), car chief Jason Sheets and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer talk as they stand over the car Bubba Wallace will drive at Bristol this weekend. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Trying to compete against teams with bigger budgets is not easy — Wallace has an average finish of 22.6 this year. But Bristol can be an equalizer because success at the high-banked short track is not as reliant on aerodynamics and dollar signs.

Wallace drove to the front and led six laps — the first laps the 24-year-old rookie had led as a Cup driver — at Bristol in April. A blistered left front tire relegated Wallace to 16th that day, but that doesn’t dampen the anticipation in the shop for this weekend. A similar run, without the tire blistering, would be a great way to showcase the team to potential sponsors it will have as guests Saturday night at the track.

So it is with that at stake the team’s weekly competition meeting takes place.

Blickensderfer gives Wallace a flash drive at the start of the meeting for his homework.

“That’s got (Kyle Larson’s) in-car (video),” Blickensderfer says. “I got that for you, at the end of the day when we had the struggle with the left front tire, we were never really able to get to the top (groove). Those guys could so I thought was worth watching.

“Yep,” Wallace said, nodding.

“That’s got qualifying on it, just to review what everybody did.”

Blickensderfer tells Wallace they will stick with their base setup from the spring race but will try three or four things to try to “tighten entry and … help that left front tire. We’ll try those in practice and see if we can figure out things.”

The blistered left front tire ruined a performance that could have rivaled Wallace’s runner-up finish in the Daytona 500, a result that left Petty smiling broadly and the now 81-year-old hustling through the crowd to bear hug his driver.

Knowing how close he had come to such a strong finish at Bristol, Wallace said he was “absolutely devastated, dejected, defeated” in a video he posted on Twitter shortly after that race.

Wallace was 12th on Lap 256 in the spring, climbed to sixth by lap 273 and worked his way to second on Lap 368 when he passed Kyle Busch. Wallace passed Brad Keselowski for the lead on Lap 375, holding it until Busch, who went on to win, got back by him six laps later.

Wallace soon fell back. As the left front tire blistered, it kept Wallace from running the bottom line because the car wouldn’t turn as well. By the time the caution came out on Lap 471, Wallace had fallen outside the top 10 and was no longer a factor for the win.

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and Bubba Wallace discuss their game plan for this weekend’s race at Bristol. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It was with that in mind that Wallace asked Blickensderfer what happened to the tire that day.

“Do you think the setup was the cause of the left front?” Wallace asks.

“I don’t think so,” Blickensderfer says. “I don’t know if it’s chicken or egg. I don’t know if the left front got worn because of the (traction compound was put down in the corners of the track) differently than it should have. There were other teams that had a similar left front issue. Us and (Keselowski) were running in the top five and 40 laps later we were getting lapped.

“It could have been brake related. Did we have something go on where you had to dial more front brake in because you were loose in?

“Yeah,” Wallace says.

“Then all of a sudden when tires wear, you locked up the left front one time.

“Yeah, yeah.”

“It takes some tread off and then from then on it gets worse.”

“Yep.”

“Or did the tread start coming up, which caused it to lock up more.”

“Gotcha.”

Blickensderfer notes that tire was worn in the center. Had it been worn on the inside edge or outside edge, it would have been a sign of a camber issue. Also, Blickensderfer says they had run further earlier in the race without an issue.

Blickensderfer also tells Wallace that they’ll have a 15-minute penalty at the end of the first practice Friday morning because they went through inspection twice before last weekend’s race at Michigan. The plan is to do a couple of mock qualifying runs in Friday’s morning session. Wallace was 16th in the first round of qualifying and 20th in the second round there in the spring. Wallace’s car had been loose in the corner in the first round and “really loose in” Blickensderfer notes in the second round.

“We’ll make sure to give you a couple of mock runs, especially on older tires to see if that loose in gets worse as it goes,” Blickensderfer says.

“OK,” Wallace says.

They discuss more about the race, go back to qualifying with Blickensderfer noting other videos he’s placed on the flash drive of drivers for Wallace to study, mention the weather and how that could impact their plans and make final notes. They end for lunch but the discussions won’t stop. The search for speed doesn’t take breaks.

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NASCAR America: Jeff Burton, Kyle Petty on criticism of Kyle Larson’s love of dirt racing

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In January, Kyle Larson caused a minor stir when he admitted that winning midget racing’s Chili Bowl would be a bigger deal for him than a victory in the Daytona 500.

The fallout of that statement was on hand last weekend at Michigan International Speedway on the eve of the Knoxville Nationals, one of sprint racing’s biggest events.

Larson claimed he was going to “just keep my mouth shut” about any potential success about the event held the Saturday night before the Cup race at Michigan.

On NASCAR America, Jeff Burton, Kyle Petty and Carolyn Manno had a lengthy discussion about Larson’s comments and whether drivers in a premier auto racing series should compete in other disciplines.

“I was a little offended for him saying the Chili Bowl was bigger than NASCAR’s biggest race,” Burton conceded. “But when I step back, me personally, I think the Southern 500 is the biggest race of the year. That’s no disrespect to the Daytona 500. I never won the Daytona 500. If you ask me which race do I wish I would have won, that’s the one because it’s so prestigious and it means so much. … I think when you are racing and this is your primary racing … and then you say there’s another series you’d rather win a race in, I think some NASCAR fans did get offended by it and to be honest I understand why.”

Burton added, “He’s still here. If he didn’t want to do it, he wouldn’t be doing it.”

Petty believes friction over Larson’s love of dirt racing stems from the collision of generations of fans and fans of different racing disciplines.

“You see guys coming in who dreamed of going to (Indianapolis Motor Speedway), that dreamed of running sprint cars, that dreamed of doing some totally different,” Petty said. “Where I grew up dreaming of the Daytona 500. That’s been in our blood and that’s in the DNA of what this sport is. You expect, as a fan, your driver to come in and say, ‘Tell you what, the Daytona 500, Darlington, the Coca-Cola 600, those are races I want to win.’ So I think we have a bias, or the fans have a bias sometimes, against the guy that didn’t come in and dream about being here all the time and I think that’s wrong. Because at heart, Kyle Larson is a racer. At heart, Tony Stewart, he didn’t dream about coming to Daytona, he dreamed about going down the road and winning at Indianapolis. Jeff Gordon did the same thing.”

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Scan All from Michigan International Speedway

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It was another Cup race and another win for Kevin Harvick Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver scored his series leading seventh win of the season after sweeping each stage.

Relive the race with the latest edition of Scan All from NASCAR America.

Here are some highlights.

Watch the above video for more.

Ryan: Disband the Drivers Council? Here’s why the timing seems right

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BROOKLYN, Mich. – The new boss from the old guard, a central figure in one of the season’s biggest stories, was there.

The proposed 2019 rules, a persistent flashpoint for stoking controversy and debate this year, were on the agenda.

The forum was set for an open dialogue about the myriad challenges facing NASCAR and how to address them.

But when the 10 members of the Drivers Council met at Michigan International Speedway last Friday, there was an extremely notable absence.

After winning Sunday at the 2-mile oval, Kevin Harvick copped to watching football and playing video games with his son, Keelan, two nights earlier while critical discussions on instrumental issues were taking place a few hundred yards away.

“I had no interest,” said Harvick, who attributed it to there being “so many politics and things happening” in NASCAR now.

Here’s a weighty topic that maybe would pique his interest.

Should the Drivers Council be disbanded?

If one of the most strongly opinionated and outspoken veterans of the Cup Series sees so little usefulness and utility in meeting with NASCAR brass and his peers to hammer out the hard choices shaping the industry’s direction, how can the group be taken seriously?

If attendance isn’t compulsory for perhaps the most important meeting of the season, particularly with new interim CEO Jim France in attendance, how can anyone say with a straight face that these meetings aren’t a waste of everyone’s time?

After being created three years ago amid the hoopla of new rules packages and a collective approach to “fixing” the racing, the Drivers Council feels to be an idea whose time has run its course, particularly with last week’s change in the sanctioning body’s leadership.

Though he has a much more low-key style than his older brother and father did when they ran NASCAR from 1948-2003, Jim France will bring more of their method of governance. When he stepped into a similar role nearly 20 years ago (for a few months while Bill France Jr. battled cancer), his consigliere was Mike Helton, who also was at France’s side this past weekend at Michigan.

Helton wields enormous respect within NASCAR because he is the most tangible and visible link to the iron-fisted rule of Bill France Jr., who likely would have scoffed at the attempts of embracing consensus-building over the past three years with drivers, tracks and teams.

That era of widespread “collaboration,” a well-intentioned concept with earnest objectives but flawed execution, needs to mercifully end.

Dumping the Drivers Council would be an effectively symbolic way of conveying that message while also ending the charade of its efficacy.

This also goes for similar gatherings between racetrack leadership and NASCAR. At least one high-profile track president skips those meetings on the regular, too, for the same reason as Harvick – a lack of discernible productivity.

A fair point can be made that Harvick’s truancy Friday has much to do with his style. When the 2014 champion goes into title-contending mode, he mostly shuts off the outside world a la LeBron James’ abstention from social media during the NBA playoffs.

But being put off by “politics” – which Harvick clarified at Ford’s Mustang unveiling last Thursday was related to the debate over the 2019 rules – reinforces that star drivers hardly possess the dispositions for navigating the inherent messiness of plotting long-range courses for rules and strategy. Those “politics” will be pervasive in any meeting about such big-picture topics in NASCAR.

Racing demands that drivers are wired selfishly – and justifiably so.

There is no incentive for worrying about the greater good when trying to beat a few dozen other highly competitive opponents every Sunday. And drivers’ views understandably will forever be compromised in evaluating rules that could help or hinder their performances depending on wide-ranging circumstances.

According to those who attended Friday’s Drivers Council meeting, there was a predictably discordant tone about next season (revolving around proposals of whether to use the “drafting package” from the All-Star Race in anywhere from a handful of 2019 races to more than a dozen). Every piece of drivers’ feedback will be tainted to some degree by the vested interests in their own results.

This isn’t to suggest they should be dissuaded from having opinions or expressing them.

Harvick has his own forums – notably, his weekly SiriusXM Satellite Radio show in which he regularly leverages a national platform to champion his ideas for change whether it’s overhauling stages on road courses or building a better schedule. He has been deliberate weighing in on major topics there every Tuesday.

He undoubtedly believes his public voice carries as much or more weight than behind the closed doors of the Drivers Council.

There’s nothing much more that needs to be said there.


Michigan’s results again underscored the importance of having an in-house Optical Scanning Station to mimic NASCAR’s inspection process at the track, and how some teams greatly benefited from preseason decisions to make six-figure investments in the elaborate systems of high-definition cameras and computer scans (it’s been estimated the cost of an OSS is at least $300,000).

Among the first teams to have an OSS were Stewart-Haas Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing, which accordingly have accounted for 19 of 23 wins this season.

“I don’t see how you can race without it, to be honest with you,” crew chief Rodney Childers said about the OSS after his team’s series-leading seventh victory.

NASCAR allows teams to access an OSS at its R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, but the logistics and time required of schlepping cars there precludes it as an efficient option. An OSS is needed to help optimize cars at multiple junctures during the building process, making it a necessity for more than just powerhouse teams. During a NASCAR on NBC Podcast episode in April, Front Row Motorsports general manager Jerry Freeze said his team was considering an OSS for next season.

Hendrick Motorsports took delivery on its OSS in May, and its results notably have improved over the past month – enough to catch the eye of Kyle Larson, whose Chip Ganassi Racing team still lacks its own OSS.

“(Hendrick has) finally been able to learn where they can push the limits on things,” Larson said. “So, it sounds like maybe we have (an OSS) coming, so I’m really excited about that. Hopefully we can get it up and running before the playoffs start.”

With no top fives or laps led in the last six races for Larson (who started and finished 17th at Michigan), it can’t come soon enough.


Larson’s fade since finishing second at Chicagoland Speedway has cast serious doubt on which Chevrolet team (if any) has the best chance of emerging as a playoff threat.

After winning at Watkins Glen International with Chase Elliott and posting career-best finishes by Alex Bowman and William Byron at Pocono Raceway, Hendrick seemed to experience a backslide at Michigan, where only Elliott (ninth) finished in the top 15.

Meanwhile, Richard Childress Racing had two of the top three finishing Chevys in Austin Dillon (who finished fourth after running second to Harvick for much of the final 50 laps) and Ryan Newman (13th despite a spin after starting sixth).

It would be reductive to proclaim RCR as the lead Chevy team off one race. But Elliott said Friday he viewed Michigan “as kind of a gauge where we stack up” for the playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the other 1.5-mile tracks (Kansas Speedway in the second round and Texas Motor Speedway in the third) that are coming up.


Larson’s admission he was keeping his mouth shut about moonlighting in the Knoxville Nationals was a reminder that his family’s love of dirt racing rubs some the wrong way. In January, he said the Chili Bowl was bigger than the Daytona 500, and his father, Mike, made a similar comparison about Knoxville last week.

Larson and his family shouldn’t have to apologize for embracing their roots, particularly at a time when NASCAR is emphasizing the importance of short-track racing at regional tracks. As the self-proclaimed “last true racer,” Larson admirably has tried to build a bridge between NASCAR and dirt racing. It’s unlikely to bring many crossover fans to NASCAR, but good relationships certainly help more than poisonous sniping between series.

There’s some hope that resistance could diminish under new management. Jim France has a known fondness for sports cars (helping guide IMSA’s current structure) and motorcycle racing. He presumably understands that racing’s biggest challenge is relevance across the board, and it helps if everyone is pulling the rope in the same direction.


If sports cars and the 24 Hours of Le Mans really are in the long-term future for Kurt Busch, then either his current home of Stewart-Haas Racing or Chip Ganassi Racing would make sensible options as the 2004 champion mulls his future.

Busch has emphasized (particularly in this NASCAR on NBC Podcast episode) that his Ford ties are critical in pursuing sports cars. Stewart-Haas Racing has been Ford’s lead team this season in NASCAR. Ganassi fields Chevrolets in the Cup Series but races Fords in IMSA’s GT class (two years ago, the team delivered Ford’s first win in 50 years in the 24 Hours of Le Mans).

If the aim is the best NASCAR fit for Busch, though, it’s Richard Childress Racing that would seem the most logical. RCR has made a run at the 2004 series champion before, and Busch often has said he has worked best with old-school crew chiefs – whose philosophies are embodied by RCR (starting at the top).

If Gene Haas is to be believed that 2019 likely will be Busch’s last season in Cup, it would be a good fit for the team, too. RCR could use a driver with Busch’s talent to benchmark its cars, and if the plan is for Ty Dillon eventually to join his older brother at RCR, Busch would be a first-class stopgap.


While Joe Gibbs Racing-affiliated drivers Ryan Preece and Christopher Bell deservedly are popping up in conversations about future Cup rides, there’s another Toyota driver who should be on radar screens – the 2015 Cup Series rookie of the year Brett Moffitt.

Moffitt just turned 26, and his four victories in the Camping World Truck Series with underfunded Hattori Racing have proved he deserves another shot at NASCAR’s premier series. The Grimes, Iowa, native made 45 Cup starts between 2014-17 and had a best finish of eighth with Michael Waltrip Racing in March 2015 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Bump & Run: Favorite Bristol memories

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What is your favorite Bristol memory?

Kyle Petty: Watching Harry Gant show those high school boys in Grand National/Busch series how to get it done at Bristol. We would sit on the hill on the backstretch and cheer him on!

Parker Kligerman: My first race there was in 2010. We wrecked in qualifying at the spring race because of a mechanical issue and missed the race. I was doing a part-time schedule in NXS & had good runs but failed to get a top 10. So when we came back in August I really wanted/needed a good run and we had an awesome race and finished in the top 10 for my first time. This was the start of many good races for myself there including second place in trucks in 2012. … Some of my favorite memories growing up were the onboard cameras looking backward at the cars following where at Bristol you could see how much undulation the car was going through and how close they would get to each other’s bumpers. It was awesome and really made me want to race there one day. I miss the old track and think I would have been really good on it. 

Nate Ryan: The first night race I ever covered there, when Jimmie Johnson flipped off Robby Gordon, an angry Elliott Sadler punched the side of an ambulance, and Ward Burton threw his heel pads at Dale Earnhardt Jr. and then said he wished he would have had “something else to have shot” through his window. Oh, and Jeff Gordon bumped Rusty Wallace aside with two laps remaining to end a 31-race winless streak. All that happened on Aug. 24, 2002.

Dustin Long: The 1999 night race when Dale Earnhardt “rattled the cage” of Terry Labonte and spun him out of the lead. What was so memorable wasn’t the incident but the reaction. Several minutes after the race ended, they played the radio call of the final lap on the track’s pa system and the fans — it seemed more than half were still in the stands at the time — booed the moment Earnhardt’s hit wrecked Labonte. Incredible atmosphere.

Daniel McFadin: Covering my first race there last August. The track sneaks up on you, as there’s not much in the town to suggest one of NASCAR’s most famous tracks is located there. It suddenly appears around a bend as you approach it. Then walking up out of the tunnel in the infield was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Bristol is a wonder.

Dan Beaver: The 1996 Night Race. Until this year, that race always fell on or near my father’s birthday. That year the race landed on his birthday and I got a chance to take him for our first trip to a track that had always been one of our favorites. 

We know who the Big 3 are. Who would be your pick to make it the Big 4 right now?

Kyle Petty: There is no Big 4 … and it’s too late for someone to join the Party. Harvick, Busch and Truex are in a league of their own. Someone would have to win 40% of the remaining races (5) for me to consider them a part of this group.

Parker Kligerman: Brad Keselowski. I’ve been saying it for months, that the 2 car is the best at executing and using strategy to steal track position from faster cars. As of this time, barring disaster, they are the fourth best team. 

Nate Ryan: If forced to pick a fourth who will race for the championship, it would be Kurt Busch based on his recent results and veteran experience. But after Michigan, the separation between Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. and the rest of the field seems as wide as ever. There is little confidence in picking a fourth driver to join them.

Dustin Long: Although he hasn’t won this year, I’d make Kurt Busch as the fourth based on recent performance. His sixth-place finish at Michigan was his fifth consecutive top-10 result.

Daniel McFadin: I’m going to go with Chase Elliott. His win at Watkins Glen is one of four consecutive top 10s. My midseason pick, Kyle Larson, has basically disappeared since his runner-up finish at Chicagoland with just two top 10s in the last six races.

Dan Beaver: I don’t think anyone belongs in their league or is likely to get there. The way the playoffs work, someone will join them with a theoretical chance for the championship at Homestead, but no one is going to seriously challenge. 

What is a racing event that you’ve never attended but is on your bucket list and why?

Kyle Petty: Isle Of Man TT races! If you know what it is, you know why … nuff said.

Parker Kligerman: 24 Hours of Le Mans. Apparently it’s an incredible festival and there is just something sacred about that race. Though I don’t want to just attend but definitely race in it … one day … one day. 

Nate Ryan: The 24 Hours of Le Mans because of its history, tradition and fan appeal. Having written about the race so many times from afar (through advance stories about American teams preparing for the spectacle), I’d love to see it in person.

Dustin Long: Growing up in the Midwest and attending numerous sprint car races with my dad, I’ve always wanted to attend the Knoxville Nationals and experience what makes that event special.

Daniel McFadin: I could say the Daytona 500, but I’ll go all out and say Speedweeks. Give me a RV and a prime spot in the Daytona infield for two weeks. Seems like heaven.

Dan Beaver: The Hell Tour: DIRTcar’s Summer Nationals that feature almost 30 races in a span of 30 days during the summer. It may well be racing’s last true endurance event.