Blake Koch

Friday 5: Daytona 500, Speedweeks prove costly to teams

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Crashes collected an alarmingly high number of cars in the Daytona 500 for a fourth consecutive year.

Thirty-two of the 40 cars — 80% of the field — in this year’s Daytona 500 were involved in a crash based on NASCAR’s race report and video review.

In the last four years, 81.3% of the cars in the season-opening Cup race were involved in an accident. 

Despite the number of cars damaged in Daytona 500 crashes, Ryan Newman is the only Cup driver taken to a hospital in the past four years. He was released from Halifax Medical Center on Wednesday but will not race this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, ending his streak of 649 consecutive Cup starts that dates to his rookie season in 2002.

While there is an expectation of cars wrecking in the sport’s most prestigious race because of the tight racing, it hasn’t always been this extreme.

From 2013-16, the percentage of cars involved in an accident in the Daytona 500 was 42.6% — nearly half the percentage of cars damaged in crashes the past four years. 

Among the reasons for the dramatic increase is that more crashes begin toward the front of the field.

The 19-car crash in Monday’s Daytona 500 started when a shove from Joey Logano pushed Aric Almirola into Brad Keselowski’s car. Keselowski, running second, was turned into the outside wall in front of the field.

A nine-car crash in overtime started when Ross Chastain, running fourth, got out of shape after contact with Ryan Preece’s car and came up the track into Preece and Logano.

And Newman’s crash coming to the checkered flag happened while he led.

In 2019, 21 cars were involved in a crash with less than 10 laps left in the scheduled distance. It started when Matt DiBenedetto, running fifth, turned in front of the field after contact from behind by Paul Menard.

The 2018 race featured a 12-car crash that started when Kurt Busch, running third, got hit from behind and spun in front of the field, forcing the race to go to overtime.

In the 2017 race, 17 cars crashed after Jimmie Johnson, running third, was hit and spun in front of the field.

Blocking also has been cited for an increase in incidents. As to what is considered fair when blocking, Martin Truex Jr. said a few days before this year’s race: Well, I think lately anything is fair. It tends to cause a lot of crashes, too, but it seems like that’s par for the course in speedway racing these days is just block until you crash and go to the next one.”

All the cars crashed in this year’s Daytona 500 pushed the total number of vehicles in a wreck during Speedweeks to 102 for the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series.

It’s the third time in the last eight years the number of damaged vehicles exceeded 100 for Speedweeks.

Included in that total were all 18 cars in the Busch Clash. Winner Erik Jones was listed in three crashes in that exhibition race.

2. Xfinity drivers get help

This season marks the first full season Xfinity drivers will be able to look at some data from competitors, much like Cup drivers do.

“I think it changes the game, especially for the rookies,” Chase Briscoe told NBC Sports.

Xfinity drivers could look at the data in the last two races of last season, Phoenix and Miami. Briscoe said the technology, which translates data to virtual effects via live tracking of cars, helped him at Phoenix.

“I’ve always told everybody that Phoenix is my worst racetrack,” Briscoe said. “For me to be able to have SMT (sports media technology) and see what guys do different (helps). We don’t have the SMT that the Cup guys have, we don’t have throttle, brake or steering. We only have GPS so we can literally only see what the car is doing line-wise and acceleration-wise. I can’t see what Kyle Busch is doing inside his race car, but I can see where his car is line-wise compared to mine and where he enters the corner.

“I know my crew chief is super excited about it. He wants me to sit down in the shop and watch two hours of the track we’re going to before we go that weekend. It’s definitely going to be a tool that we’re going to use a lot of.”

Briscoe says the technology looks like a video game, and he can change the camera angle to study another competitor.

Brandon Jones said a key is that the team can look at the data live, so his crew chief can help him change lines during a race. At Miami last year, Jones was told by his team he wasn’t driving deep enough in the corner based on the data they were looking at.

“That gave me a thought to say, hey, this is what we’ve got to do to get the car to able to do that, so it’s going to help me with adjustments,” Jones said.

3. On to Las Vegas

Among the key storylines this weekend for Cup teams at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be the performance of the Chevrolet teams with the new Camaro.

Changes were made from last year’s car to improve the aerodynamics. Chevrolet teams won 11 of 72 races in 2018-19 — its fewest wins in a two-year period since the manufacturer scored four victories in 1981-82. A Chevrolet has not made the championship Cup race since Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 title.

“I feel like last year Chevy came, they just missed the ball,” car owner Richard Petty said. “You know what I mean? They thought they had something good. 

“This year they corrected a lot of these mistakes. We hope they corrected it enough that we’re going to be competitive everywhere we go. I think from that standpoint, Chevrolet and all the Chevrolet people are really looking forward to making up for what we did last year.”

Chevrolet did win two races on 1.5-mile tracks last year (tracks the same size as Las Vegas). Alex Bowman won at Chicagoland Speedway, and Kurt Busch won at Kentucky Speedway.

4. Leaner driver

Ty Dillon says he’s lost more than 30 pounds since focusing on a workout program. He weighed 167 pounds before the season.

“I thought naively as a driver who had raced his whole life, as a Cup driver I didn’t really need to work out and take my physical (role) seriously,” said Dillon, who has former driver Blake Koch as a trainer. “In the past few years I’ve taken it serious for the first time. It has made me a better driver.”

Dillon, who is beginning his fourth season in Cup, admits: “I didn’t think I was heavy. I didn’t think I needed to workout. I just relied purely on my skill.

“I just feel different (now). I’m stronger, mentally stronger, more confident. You look back at those pictures, and you just see you’re just naive and young. You mature and grow as a person, and I think you start realizing what is important.”

5. Phoenix adjustment

Phoenix Raceway will have the PJ1 traction compound again applied to the track for next month’s races. That event marks the debut of the short track package for Cup that is intended to tighten the racing.

The traction compound will be applied in the corners but will be applied more along the driving line. Last fall, the traction compound was applied close to the wall. It will not be as high this time in the turns.

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Ross Chastain joins Kaulig Racing for three-race Xfinity deal; returns to JD Motorsports

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Ross Chastain‘s Xfinity schedule has filled out with a three-race deal with Kaulig Racing and a 30-race deal with JD Motorsports.

Chastain will drive the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet in the Feb. 16 season-opener at Daytona International Speedway. Chastain will be sponsored by Nutrien Ag Solutions at Daytona, Chicagoland Speedway (June 29) and the playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway (Nov. 2).

Nutrien Ag Solutions, an agricultural retailer of crop inputs and solutions, was intended to be a sponsor of Chastain at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Other than the three races with Kaulig Racing, Chastain will compete for JD Motorsports in the No. 4 Chevrolet the rest of the season.

Chastain was set to compete full-time for CGR this season before it shut down its Xfinity operation due to lack of sponsorship. That was a result of the Dec. 18 raids by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the California headquarters of DC Solar, Ganassi’s primary sponsor, and the home of Jeffrey Carpoff, the company’s CEO.

Chastain remains under contract with Ganassi.

“It has been awhile in the making, with a group of folks I didn’t have much to do with before,” Chastain said. “But Nutrien (Ag Solutions) is an agriculture company, so they knew my background (as a watermelon farmer). They felt like I would be a good fit for Nutrien (Ag Solutions).”

Chastain later added: “When I got into the Xfinity Series with Jimmy Dick and Viva (Auto Group), I had a Watermelon car. We were trying to figure out how to market it and our hashtag was the #AGcar.

“That was my goal coming into the series was to figure out a way to have an agriculture-based race car. This is a really big step in that direction. It goes with everything I believe in about outside the race car, right? Feeding the world, man. Nutrien (Ag Solutions), they’re stepping up to the plate world-wide. It’s incredible what they’re doing.”

Kaulig first fielded the No. 10 in the last year’s Xfinity race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Austin Dillon behind the wheel.

Chastain, who said two weeks ago that he would declare for points in the Xfinity Series, will be teammates with Justin Haley in his three races. Haley, a rookie, will drive the No. 11 full-time for Kaulig Racing.

“Been working with Justin quite a bit trying to get up to speed on everything they have going on and see what he thinks about stuff,” Chastain said. “Just trying to fit in and do my job. (Team owner) Matt (Kaulig) wants to run good and he wants to win. And that’s what I want to do with him. That’s my goal if I got in a wheelbarrow.”

While he will collect points in Xfinity, Chastain has other NASCAR plans. He’s already set to run full-time in Cup with Premium Motorsports in addition to running select races in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series with Niece Motorsports in the No. 45.

He will step into the ride that former Kaulig Racing driver Blake Koch was announced as taking in December. A press release cited Koch’s desire to focus on overseeing the success of his company, Filter Time.

Chastain will have sponsorship from RM Parks, Inc, EZ Angus Ranch and Mc Divitt Sign Company during all five West Coast races this season.

Today also marks the first of a two-day organizational test for Cup and Xfinity teams at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Chastain has been tapped by Chevrolet to drive a wheel-force car that is designed to collect data and information.

“I’m just confident in what I’m doing now and what Chevrolet is affording me the opportunities to do to get better as a race car driver are head and shoulders above what I’ve ever been able to do to prepare,” Chastain said. “I’ve never raced between Homestead and Daytona since I got into NASCAR. … Not that I’ve raced anything this year, but I’ve been putting in a lot of work with Chevrolet. So grateful to them for that.”

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NASCAR drivers play in the snow

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Charlotte, N.C. gets an average of slightly more than four inches of snowfall per year, so when a rare winter storm rolls in and dumps 10 or more inches in spots, NASCAR drivers and their families take advantage of the event.

 

Blake Koch to drive for JD Motorsports full-time in 2019

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Blake Koch will return to NASCAR full-time in 2019 to drive the No. 4 for JD Motorsports in the Xfinity Series, the team announced Tuesday.

Koch replaces Ross Chastain, who will drive for Chip Ganassi Racing next season.

Koch will be sponsored by FilterTime in select races, beginning with the season-opener at Daytona International Speedway. Koch started FilterTime after he lost his ride at Kaulig Racing following the 2017 season.

The 33-year-old driver has 213 Xfinity Series starts since 2009. He competed full-time from 2015-17, with the last two seasons coming with Kaulig Racing in the No. 11. He made the playoffs both years.

“It’s hard for me to explain how excited I am to race again and to do it for JD Motorsports,” Koch said in a press release. “I have seen the progress of this team and have raced against them for many years. Coming off their best season with Ross making the playoffs, it’s a perfect time to join them.”

Outside of starting FilterTime, Koch stayed within the sport as a driver coach for Matt Tifft and as an analyst for Fox Sports.

“We are excited to get Blake back in a race car,” said team owner Johnny Davis in a press release. “He is another overlooked talent that needs an opportunity to race, and we’re happy to have him at our organization.”

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.”