Paul Wolfe

Ryan Blaney leads dominant night for Team Penske at Martinsville

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Team Penske did everything but win Wednesday’s Cup night race at Martinsville Speedway.

While Martin Truex Jr. ran away with the victory in the final leg of the race, he was followed by Team Penske’s three cars, as Ryan Blaney led Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

At the end of the night, the three drivers combined to lead 273 of 500 laps as Logano led 234 laps and won the first stage.

But Blaney’s second-place finish – his fourth top five in the last five races – was anything but easy.

Blaney started on the pole but quickly dropped through the field and was lapped by Logano on Lap 51.

“We started off really bad,” Blaney said. “We went from starting on the pole to being a lap down in 60 laps. That’s kind of tough to do. We found a way to do that. We already dug ourselves a hole early. … After the first pit stop, we got our car a lot better, a lot better. I think just the green racetrack didn’t really go well with what we had or something. We really wore our tires out. I had to run the top a lot, was getting passed. I don’t think that helped.”

After 63 circuits of the track spent a lap down, Blaney received a free pass when the caution came out on Lap 113. He then charged to 10th place by Lap 161, fifth by Lap 182 and was second at the end of Stage 2 on Lap 260.

“We had a great long‑run car,” said Blaney, who took the lead 35 laps into the final stage. “(It was good) to be able to get the lead there at the start of the third stage, kind of biding our time, taking care of our stuff.”

It came undone during a caution that came out on Lap 328 when Blaney was penalized for a crew member going over the pit wall too soon. Blaney had to restart at the back of the field. But with just under 170 laps left in the race, Blaney charged again and was in second place with 44 laps to go.

“(Truex) just got away from me,” Blaney said. “I couldn’t run him down. By the time I got to second, he was gone. … I was never really close enough … on equally worn tires to see what we had for him.”

For Keselowski, it was his sixth straight top-10 finish, which includes two wins. He also rallied from being a lap down early.

“By the time we were able to get the lap back, we were at Stage 2,” Keselowski said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t get any stage points, but rallied to get up to the lead there about 150 to go. Wasn’t quite good enough to hold off (Truex). He was super, super strong. He proved why he’s so good. He just kept passing cars, just flying. Pretty impressive.

“All in all was really proud. The first time I’ve been here with (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins. This is a track you get a lot of reps with a crew chief, you reiterate, find small things to get to the front, to be the best. To come here our first time together and run third I think is a pretty good mark for us.”

For all three drivers it was their first time at Martinsville with their respective crew chiefs, who were swapped among the teams in the offseason. It’s a move that’s proven to be fruitful. Both Keselowski and Logano have two wins each and Blaney has had winning speed the last five races.

Logano isn’t totally surprised by the success of the crew chief swap after 11 races. He called the season so far “enlightening.”

“I think if you look at what was going on last year we all had good speed, all of our cars were strong at different points of the season or different types of race tracks, so I really didn’t see much of a risk by doing it and I think I’ve seen just a longer runway for everybody because you’re really sharing information,” Logano said.

“Obviously, we share setups and we talk to each other, but I never drove Brad’s car. I never worked with (crew chief) Paul (Wolfe).  Blaney never worked with Todd (Gordon) and Jeremy with Brad.  We can talk about it and we can try to mimic setups, but it’s not the same. … At the same time, I’m bringing what we did last year to Paul and Paul is bringing what he did last year and we’re able to just kind of try to make the best of both worlds. It’s been fun.

“There have been a lot of interesting conversations that get sparked that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. As weird as it is to see what was your team for six or seven years working with Blaney, but I honestly can tell you that the relationships that you build with your team it becomes family, so I hope for their success and I’m glad to see Blaney is running really well and leading a lot of laps and a win is right around the corner.”

NASCAR suspends one crew chief, fines five others for Darlington violations

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Chris Gayle, crew chief for Erik Jones, will be suspended for the next Cup race because Jones’ car was found to have two lug nuts not safe and secure after Sunday’s race at Darlington Raceway.

The next scheduled Cup race is Wednesday night at Darlington. Gayle also has been fined $20,000.

Seth Chavka will serve as the crew chief for Gayle. Chavka is an engineer with the team.

NASCAR also announced that it fined five Cup crew chiefs $10,000 each for their cars having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race. Those crew chiefs are Rodney Childers (for driver Kevin Harvick), Chris Gabehart (Denny Hamlin), Paul Wolfe (Joey Logano), Chad Johnston (Matt Kenseth) and Jason Ratcliff (Christopher Bell).

Click here for Cup penalty report


Storylines: New procedures for drivers, teams in return to racing

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No spectators. Drivers isolated from their teams. And a near-empty Victory Lane.

NASCAR’s return Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX) will be unlike anything the sport has experienced.

Health screenings before, during and after the race. Fewer crew members per team. Fines up to $50,000 for not following NASCAR’s strict COVID-19 guidelines.

What NASCAR does Sunday and in the coming days will be watched by other sports seeking to return during this pandemic.

“We realize up front it’s a huge responsibility for us as a sport,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, about the season resuming. “But I’m also confident in the group we’ve gathered to put this plan together.”

MORE: Storylines – Where Cup Series left off

MORE: Storylines – What’s changed in the Cup Series

MORE: NASCAR reveals competition rule changes

Here’s a look at what will take place before, during and after Sunday’s race:

# No fans are permitted. Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Joey Logano, told NBC Sports: “How weird is it going to be to show up to Darlington and no one is going to be there. No fans. No campers. No motorhomes. … It’s going to be an interesting experience for sure.”

# Drivers, crews, officials and other essential personnel will have designated times Sunday to report to screening areas at Darlington Raceway. Drivers are required to arrive at least four hours before the race. That way, if a driver fails their health screening and is not be allowed to enter the track, it would provide time for a backup driver to arrive from the Charlotte, North Carolina, area, be screened and then race.

# Once through screening, drivers will report to their motorhomes in the infield and remain there. There is no drivers meeting two hours before the race. (The drivers meeting will be held electronically at 5 p.m. ET Saturday). Drivers are to report to their cars at 3:20 p.m. ET, shortly before the command to fire engines. Family and friends are not allowed in the track. Drivers will simply go to their cars and strap in. Christopher Bell told NBC Sports: “That’s going to be very different. I’m just trying to process what I’m going to need going to the racecar. Typically, our interior specialist has everything at the car for us. I’ve taken that for granted over the last couple of years.” Among the items Bell will need to bring with him will be heel guards to protect his feet from the heat inside the car, which will be exacerbated by temperatures that could reach 90 degrees Sunday.

# Spotters will not be located on the spotter’s stand. They will be spread along the top rows of the stands along the frontstretch while maintaining social distancing of at least 6 feet between each other.

# Teams will be limited to 16 people, including the driver and five pit crew members. Top teams often have more than 20 people at the track. Typically, teams have 10 road crew members, which includes the crew chief and spotter. Now, they’ll have six. Many teams will keep their engineers at home so they can have enough mechanics on site. 

# NASCAR will space the haulers a minimum of 6 feet apart to limit contact between teams. NASCAR also says that teams should minimize contact between road crews and pit crews. That way, if a team member later tests positive, it impacts only their particular group and not the entire garage.

# Movement in the garage will be confined to marked, directional paths to better maintain social distancing.

# With only essential personnel at the track, the number of NASCAR officials also will be limited. Teams will communicate with series officials through a chat. It’s a process that has been in place but will be relied on more to keep with social distancing guidelines.

# After the race, the winner will still do their traditional burnout or celebration at the start/finish line. Erik Jones, who won last year’s Southern 500 at Darlington, told NBC Sports that it would be odd to win a race with no fans: “To be a winner and take the checkered flag, and there’s nobody cheering. That would be something I don’t think any of us have experienced. It would be weird.”

# NASCAR has instructed competitors not to engage in traditional celebratory action with others such as handshakes, fist-bumps, high-fives and hugging.

# There will be a Victory Lane but it will be only for the driver. NASCAR will direct crew members when they can enter Victory Lane and push the car to technical inspection.

# Teams must undergo post-event screening. Teams will exit the track in a staggered fashion to keep with social distancing guidelines.

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Storylines: Where NASCAR Cup Series left off

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories this week examining the key storylines as the Cup season resumes Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX).

Although it might feel much longer, it was only three months ago when the NASCAR season began.

But when teams headed to Daytona International Speedway to open the season in February, the focus was not on a virus. The questions entering the Cup season included:

How would the Team Penske driver/crew chief shuffle do?

Would the new Camaro help make Chevrolet teams more competitive?

Could Joe Gibbs Racing continue its dominance?

Car owner Roger Penske surprised many in the sport when his organization announced Jan. 6 that it was changing its driver/crew chief lineup. The move came after all three drivers finished in the top 10 in points and combined to win six races in 2019.

Joey Logano was paired with crew chief Paul Wolfe. Ryan Blaney joined crew chief Todd Gordon. Brad Keselowski was matched with crew chief Jeremy Bullins.

MORE: Cup driver points heading to Darlington

In the four Cup races held before the season was paused, the Team Penske moves continued to make headlines.

Crew chief Paul Wolfe has helped Joey Logano win two of the season’s first four races. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Logano and Wolfe won at Las Vegas and Phoenix. Blaney was in position to win at Las Vegas until a call to give up the lead and pit before the final restart. Logano capitalized by staying out and winning. Keselowski has finished 11th or better since placing 36th in the Daytona 500.

“For the most part, you could say you’re kind of starting where we left off,” Wolfe told NBC Sports about resuming the season. “I don’t know if there is any momentum left at this point; that part of it is kind of like starting over. But I think it was good, especially for us with all the changes at Team Penske in the offseason with the driver swaps, that it gave us a chance to kind of see a few different style of racetracks to get the season started and then give us some time to kind of digest it all and understand strengths and weaknesses.”

Logano told NBC Sports in victory lane at Phoenix that he and Wolfe are “a dangerous combination” with their early success and still not being as fast as they want to be.

The three Penske drivers have combined to lead more than 30% of the laps run (315 of 992) this season. No other organization has led more laps. Hendrick Motorsport’s four-driver lineup is next, having led 313 of 992 laps.

Hendrick Motorsports has shown more success this season with the change in the Camaro, which was introduced to improve the manufacturer’s lackluster performance the past two years. And also help Chevrolet get back into the Cup championship race. Chevrolet has not had a Cup team race for the championship in the season finale the past three years.

At Las Vegas, Jimmie Johnson finished fifth, giving him his first top-five result since Daytona in July 2019. Alex Bowman won at Auto Club Speedway, and Chase Elliott has led more laps than any other driver (186) this season.

“The performance of our cars were pretty good,” Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, told NBC Sports. “Not a huge gap, if any gap to anybody else. That, on our side, was good. The execution of the races wasn’t very good.”

The expectation entering the season was that Joe Gibbs Racing would continue to dominate after winning 19 of 36 points races last year, placing three of its drivers in the championship race and Kyle Busch claiming the Cup title.

The season started well for JGR with Erik Jones winning the crash-marred Busch Clash and Denny Hamlin winning the Daytona 500, a victory overshadowed by Ryan Newman‘s terrifying last-lap crash and the image less than 48 hours later of him walking out of a Daytona hospital holding hands with his daughters.

After the Daytona successes for JGR, its drivers combined for more finishes of 20th or worse (five) than top 10s (four). Martin Truex Jr., who had 24 top-10 finishes last season, did not score a top-10 result in the season’s first four races.

Kyle Busch finished second at Auto Club and placed third at Phoenix Raceway, which will host the championship race in November for the first time. Even with that result, Busch said more work remained.

“We unloaded and we weren’t very good,” he said after that race. “I wasn’t too optimistic for the race and rightfully so.”

He later said: “We need to come back here with a better piece.”

Will JGR’s fortunes change this week? Each of the team’s four drivers has at least one Darlington Cup victory.

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Penalty report from Phoenix Raceway

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NASCAR announced Tuesday it has fined crew chief Paul Wolfe $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut on the No. 22 of race winner Joey Logano’s Team Penske Ford Mustang following Sunday’s race in Phoenix.

No other penalties were assessed by NASCAR.