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Penalty report for Atlanta Motor Speedway

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NASCAR has issued three fines to crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts during the race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Two were in Cup with Derek Stamets, crew chief on Bubba Wallace‘s No. 43 Chevrolet, and Mike Wheeler, crew chief on Matt DiBenedetto‘s No. 95 Toyota, being fined $10,000 each for one unsecured lug nut.

In the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Johnny Sauter‘s crew chief Joel Shear Jr. was fined $2,500 for one unsecured lug nut.

There were no other penalties.

 

Richard Petty Motorsports promotes Derek Stamets to Bubba Wallace’s crew chief

Photo: Dustin Long
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Richard Petty Motorsports announced Thursday it has promoted lead engineer Derek Stamets to crew chief for Bubba Wallace in the No. 43 Chevrolet.

Stamets has been RPM’s lead engineer since 2012, being part of race wins with Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola. Prior to joining RPM, he recorded multiple Cup wins with a number of drivers including NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan.

“Derek was a logical decision for us to move up,” RPM director of competition Philippe Lopez said in a media release. “He spent the full season with Bubba and our Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 program last year and has been with our organization for seven seasons. We want to keep the chemistry that Derek and Bubba built together while continuing the experience we built with Chevrolet and Richard Childress Racing. We are confident in Derek’s leadership of the No. 43 team.”

Stamets will begin his new duties immediately and take part in the NASCAR test with Wallace today and Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He replaces Drew Blickensderfer, who moved to crew chief of Front Row Racing’s No. 34 Ford, driven by Michael McDowell.

“Derek has a lot of knowledge of our program,” Wallace said. “He’s not having to learn a new program and I’m not having to learn a new personality. I’m comfortable working with Derek and this makes the most sense for improvement. I think he’s eager to make more of the decisions and put his footprint on our race team.”

Wallace is entering his second full-time season on the Cup circuit. As a rookie in 2018, Wallace had one top five – a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 – and three top-10 finishes, with an average start of 24.8 and an average finish of 24.5. He also had six DNFs.

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Inside Richard Petty Motorsports: A night to forget

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Dustin Long spent last week with Richard Petty Motorsports to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at all that takes place before a race. 

Part 1: Putting together a game plan for Bristol

Part 2: Searching for sponsorship 

Part 3: Bubba Wallace earns respect from fans, crew 

Part 4: A day filled with highs and lows 

BRISTOL, Tenn. — The lift gate slammed with a thud, loud enough to be heard over the roar of cars that circled Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Richard Petty Motorsports hauler was loaded about 45 minutes after the team’s race ended after three laps Saturday night because of a crash.

“It sucks,” car chief Jason Sheets said.

Crew members load Bubba Wallace’s wrecked car in the hauler. (Photo: Dustin Long)

He laughed — what else could one do? — and shrugged his shoulders. Then, he walked away with the rest of the team toward the Turn 3 tunnel. They headed to a nearby airport for the 22-minute flight to Statesville (North Carolina) Regional Airport and then a drive home.

There was no storybook ending for this underfunded single-car team. They had hoped to repeat how well Bubba Wallace ran at Bristol in April when he drove to the front and led six laps. A blistered left-front tire relegated him to a 16th-place finish that day.

With potential sponsors at the track Saturday, Richard Petty Motorsports executives hoped for a similar type performance minus the blistered tire.

Bristol marked the fifth time in the last six races that Medallion Bank and Petty’s Garage — companies operated by co-owners Andrew Murstein and Richard Petty — were on the car because no other company paid the be the primary sponsor. The team does not have a primary sponsor for six of the season’s final 12 races.

Missing that sponsorship, there isn’t money for the newest parts and RPM can’t build new cars as often. It makes it difficult to compete against bigger teams. Richard Petty Motorsports last had a top-10 finish in April at Texas.

Bristol doesn’t rely as much on aerodynamics, so the money bigger teams outspend RPM on engineering doesn’t make as much an impact there as at a bigger track.

(Clockwise left to right) Engineering intern Erik Long, car chief Jason Sheets and mechanic Joey Forgette before Saturday’s race (Photo: Dustin Long)

That’s significant because RPM has two engineers. As part of the Richard Childress Racing technical alliance, the team has access to RCR’s engineers.

With only one engineer, Derek Stamets, able to travel this weekend, RPM was loaned Erik Long, an engineering intern at RCR who has one final semester remaining at UNC Charlotte.

The team was hopeful after Wallace was 12th on the speed chart in Friday’s final practice but the performance dropped in qualifying when he failed to advance beyond the first round and started 27th. Frustrated, Wallace spoke briefly with crew chief Drew Blickensderfer before walking out to the hauler Friday and slamming the sliding doors shut.

Later that night, Wallace and Blickensderfer texted about how the car handled and changes that needed for the race. They settled on a setup similar to what Wallace had at the end of the April race with one change to prevent the left front tire from blistering again.

Blickensderfer was confident Saturday evening in the car’s performance after about 20 laps. With a competition caution set for Lap 60, he had a plan in place of pitting if there was a caution about 30 laps into the race to get off sequence from the leaders and gain track position later when they pitted.

Bubba Wallace with his team shortly before the start of the race. (Photo: Dustin Long)

The mood was light around the car on pit road before the start when Blickensderfer walked out there. Wallace joked with his teammates. As Wallace grabbed his helmet to put on, the public address system played the song “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People. Wallace joined the crowd in doing the hand motions during the refrain. Once inside the car, he exchanged playful hand gestures with interior mechanic David Cropps, whose job is to ensure Wallace’s equipment keeps the driver safe in an accident.

As the cars align for the start, spotter Freddie Kraft gives Wallace,on the inside of Row 14, instructions.

“One to go at the line,” Kraft tells Wallace on the radio. “Just try to rubber up that bottom (line) as best you can here. … I’m just worried about it being real slick the first lap, you know what I mean? (The traction compound) will burn in within the first lap or so, but the first lap might be a little slick.”

Wallace then tells the team: “All right boys, let’s see what we can do at the end of the night. Good times coming from inside the car. Appreciate the hard work. Let’s see what we can do. Appreciate it. Love you.”

Kraft tells Wallace: “Take care of that thing. Let’s have some fun tonight, brother. Let’s go to work.”

The green flag waves.

Forty-four seconds later, Kraft yells on the radio: “Check up! Check up! Check up! Check up! Check up! Down! Down! Down! Down! Down! Down! Down! Down! Son of a bitch. We’re killed.”

Kyle Busch slides up the track in Turns 3 and 4, bounces off Ryan Blaney and slides down the frontstretch. Wallace ran into the back of AJ Allmendinger’s car, goes low and then is forced into the inside wall when Daniel Suarez cuts hard left to avoid Busch’s car.

A NASCAR official points to the fluid leaking from Bubba Wallace’s car after he was collected in a crash. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Wallace makes it to pit road. The damage is too great. The radiator and oil cooler are damaged and fluid drains from the bottom of the car.

Wallace’s race is over. He climbs from the car and slams his helmet against roof.

He fist bumps his teammates and thanks them for their work.

Wallace will finish 38th, completing three of 500 laps.

“I was pissed there for a moment,” he said after exiting the infield care center. “Then you just laugh about it. It’s crazy. Can’t even make it two laps, I don’t know if we made it a lap and then we’re wadded up. Just a bummer. I usually sweat pretty easily. Hell, I didn’t have enough time (in the car) to sweat.”

With that, his duties are done, a weekend gone. He walks out of the care center and heads toward the tunnel to leave.

The race continues without Wallace and Richard Petty Motorsports.

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Inside Richard Petty Motorsports: A day filled with highs, lows

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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 all that takes place before a race. Watch for his stories each day through Sunday.

Part 1: Putting together a game plan for Bristol

Part 2: Searching for sponsorship 

Part 3: Bubba Wallace earns respect from fans, crew 

BRISTOL, Tennessee — Bubba Wallace bounced up the four steps to the lounge of his team’s hauler and announced his presence with an expletive.

It wasn’t uttered in anger but exuberance.

“I’m wore out!” the 24-year old Cup rookie said, beads of sweat on his forehead, after Friday’s opening Cup practice at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Bubba Wallace explains the car’s handling to crew chief Drew Blickensderfer after they finished the opening Cup practice Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Photo: Dustin Long)

The intense 15-second laps left Wallace speaking in short bursts as he described the car’s handling to crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, engineer Derek Stamets and director of competition Philippe Lopez.

Wallace’s arms moved up and down and side to side as he talked, showing Blickensderfer how the car reacted on the high-banked half-mile track.

While Wallace’s fastest circuit in the opening practice session ranked 29th of 41 drivers, his times compared favorably the more laps he ran. Another practice remained to fine-tune the Chevrolet Camaro before qualifying for tonight’s Cup race (6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

This gave the team hope. It had been more than four months since Wallace last scored a top-10 finish. Anticipation built in the shop this week as the Cup series returned to Bristol. It was here in April that Wallace drove the same car he’s running this weekend to the front and led six laps — the first laps he’d led in his Cup career. He seemed headed for a top-10 result that day, but a blistered left front tire left him with a 16th-place finish.

A strong result could help the team as it searches for sponsorship and entertains potential suitors tonight. Richard Petty Motorsports seeks sponsorship for half of the remaining 12 races after Bristol. Without those sponsorship dollars, the team is not able to buy all the new parts bigger teams can, have as many people working in the shop or build new cars as often. That impacts performance. 

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and his team unload the No. 43 car Friday morning. Photo: Dustin Long

But at Bristol, a team can run well without all those dollars and with a limited crew. They just have to work harder.

Blickensderfer walks across the track at 7 a.m. Friday to help unload equipment from the team’s hauler before the garage opens at 7:30 a.m. But he spends 15 minutes examining a hub on a left rear wheel of the team’s hauler after Jeffrey Icenhour said a warning light illuminated on his way to the track.

When the garage opens, Blickensderfer and the crew unload the car and push it to pit road, which serves as their garage Friday since Bristol’s infield has no stalls.

While his car goes through inspection, Wallace’s day officially begins at 9:30 a.m. with NASCAR’s mandatory rookie meeting. Wallace is first, arriving five minutes early. Richard Buck, managing director of the Cup Series, notes Wallace’s punctuality. Blake Jones, Ross Chastain, Jesse Little and William Byron soon arrive and the 10-minute meeting begins. Buck details various practice, qualifying and race procedures and notes where the traction compound has been placed on the track in the corners.

Richard Buck, managing director of NASCAR’s Cup Series, leads the rookie meeting, while Kurt Busch waits to speak to the drivers. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Former Cup champion Kurt Busch attends to offer advice. He reminds the rookies “how fast things move here.” He’s talking about what happens on the track but it also describes how the weekend’s ebb-and-flow can suddenly change.

The day’s pace quickens. Opening Cup practice goes from 10:35 – 11:55 a.m. ET. Wallace and his team stop 15 minutes early, a penalty for failing prerace inspection twice last weekend at Michigan.

Not long after the meeting that Wallace bounded into the lounge for, he’s back in the car. Final practice goes from 12:40 – 1:50 p.m.

After making a run in the session, Wallace radios his crew: “Little bit freer in there. We’ll have to guard that for the race.”

He uses the first part of session to run several laps in a row to prepare for the race— just as he and did in the opening session.

After a few adjustments, he returns to the track. Blickensderfer watches from atop the team’s hauler so he can see how Wallace’s car reacts. Lopez watches on a laptop in the hauler, surrounded by multiple TVs hanging on the wall. One shows various camera angles of the track and weather radar, another displays detailed lap time information of any driver they want and plots those laps on a graph, and a third TV shows a view of the cars exiting Turn 2, going down the backstretch and into Turn 3.

Lopez calls the computer program he’s watching on his laptop a cartoon. He can view the animated version of Wallace’s run in real time. Lopez can call up any driver on the track or a previous run by any driver in that session and overlay their lap on the track with Wallace’s to compare. The computer program also shows the throttle trace and brake pressure for each car simultaneously.

This allows Lopez to see where another driver might be accelerating sooner to show Wallace. Lopez matches Wallace’s lap against those of Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., among others, throughout the sessions.

As Lopez watches Wallace’s run on the computer, Wallace’s car suddenly goes through the wall.

What has actually happened is that Wallace scraped the wall but the fender damage was minor.

“I don’t know how we didn’t hit it,” Wallace tells Lopez later.

The incident proves to be a good point to switch to the qualifying setup.

Bubba Wallace’s crew work on his car Friday. (Photo: Dustin Long)

While the crew makes the adjustments, Wallace stands behind his car on pit road and looks toward Turn 1. Richard Petty, in his black jeans and white collared button-down shirt, walks over the pit wall and takes his long stride toward his driver.

Petty puts his arm around Wallace and talks to him. Wallace nods as hears about every other word over the roar of the cars that scream by every few seconds.

When Wallace returns to the car, he is fast. He finishes the final session 12th on the speed chart with a lap of 15.37 seconds (124.792 mph), although not every team made a mock qualifying run in that session. Still, it’s something to feel good about. But work remains, as Wallace, Blickensderfer, Stamets and Lopez again meet in the hauler’s lounge.

“So from run to run, it got tighter,” Wallace says, sitting in a rollaway office chair that he maneuvers to be next to Blickensderfer. “And so trying to carry speed through (Turns) 1 and 2, you’re pushing the limits. And then hit the bump and sh-woof, like it shoves you this way and snaps you loose.”

“Both the second and third laps?” Blickensderfer asks. Yes is Wallace’s response.

“So we can go more on the second adjustment,” Wallace continues. “But I like the way it felt. I didn’t get all that I could out of it, just didn’t expect it to be that good up top for the (fast lap) we ran. (Lopez) said Harvick initiates throttle a little bit more. Just starts a little bit more. I know I can do that. … Just go out there.”

Blickensderfer reads from his notes, saying how after the first run Wallace said they needed to turn better. After adjustments, it didn’t turn any better next time on track.

“So whatever adjustment we did didn’t react or we need to go more. I’d say it’s probably both,” Blickensderfer says.

“What did you do there?” Wallace asks.

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and Bubba Wallace debrief. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“Raise the trackbar up both sides,’’ Blickensderfer says. “That’s what got you to kind of pivot the time before. I’ve got many notes here of your second qualifying run being loose in that now you’re running the top …”

“It doesn’t matter,” Wallace says, finishing the sentence.

Wallace then discusses entering pit road and the brakes, noting how rough it is when he applies them, telling Blickensderfer that it makes a ffttt-ffttt-ffttt-ffttt-ffttt sound.

Wallace also asks Stamets and Blickensderfer to “give me something” to help his car over the bump off Turn 2. Blickensderfer tells Wallace how high Larson and Blaney are running in the corners. Blickensderfer also mentions how he’s observed most of the field exit the corner in Turn 2. Blickensderfer goes over Wallace’s laps and notes

Dale Inman, Hall of Fame crew chief for Petty, walks in and is soon followed by spotter Freddie Kraft, who stands in the walkway because there’s no room to sit down. Kraft and Wallace discuss the lines he ran through the corners and how they compare to other drivers.

Wallace studies the lap times and notes how well they ran: “P12, when’s the last time we’ve seen that?” He gets up to leave and will return a few hours later for qualifying.

If he can repeat that, he’ll likely be among the top 24 to advance to the second round of qualifying. If he does that, maybe he can squeeze more speed out of the car and make it into the top 12 and advance to the final round.

Wallace went out halfway through the 15-minute opening round in qualifying. His time was worse than he had run in final practice. As more cars make runs, Wallace falls outside the top 24. He makes another qualifying attempt. He is on pace to climb into the top 24 when he loses time in Turns 3 and 4 and qualifies 27th with a lap of 15.43 seconds.

Blickensderfer walks into the hauler first. Wallace follows a few strides behind.

Wallace says the car was too loose.

He turns and shouts: “On to tomorrow!”

Wallace walks out of the hauler and slams the sliding doors shut.

Moments later, the crew enters the hauler.

They have been at the track for 11 hours and assaulted by noise the entire time — from generators, power tools, cars and even the public address system, which made sure any moment without sound was filled.

Inside the hauler, the air conditioner hums. Radios and headsets clank on the countertop as the crew puts them away.

There is no other sound.

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer walks back into the team hauler as crew members prepare to put the car on the liftgate after qualifying. (Photo: Dustin Long)

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Inside look at Richard Petty Motorsports’ Bristol game plan

Photo: Dustin Long
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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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