Wednesday’s All-Star Race at Bristol can serve as a perfect NASCAR victory lap

The course has been a bit bumpy, but NASCAR’s return to action can earn a proper salute during Wednesday’s All-Star exhibition.

Even when all is well, the art of the “All-Star Game” was becoming an endangered species.

The NFL’s Pro Bowl has been on life support for years, perhaps sustained by the concept of “hate-watching” normally reserved for reality shows. Winter showcases like the NBA and NHL have become increasingly gimmick-filled (via the “Elam Ending” and a divisional 3-on-3 tournament respectively) and are often remembered more for the weekend events that accompany them. MLB’s Midsummer Classic remains a tradition despite dilution via interleague play and free agency.

As for NASCAR, their upcoming exhibition showcase might be one of the brightest and most important nights in the circuit’s history.

Wednesday night will mark the 36th annual NASCAR All-Star event and the first at Bristol Motor Speedway(7 p.m. ET, FS1). It will be a celebration of racing and competition like no other, with a grand prize of $1 million due to the winning team. NASCAR is also set to welcome 30,000 of their closest friends to partake, as that limited number will be welcomed into the Tennessee-based stadium. Those who enter will witness just how far NASCAR has come in one of the most turbulent times in the country’s history.

The fact NASCAR is even able to stage such an event is a win on its own. Other leagues have not only scrapped their 2020 All-Star proceedings, but some are even willing to ditch the potential stagings in 2021 to complete modern seasons (the NHL, eager to not only finish this season but also play a full 82-game slate next year, seems most likely to do so). NASCAR is now holding an event that could be deemed “non-essential”, a race where only a large bag of cash is on the line.

Leading up to a fun event like the All-Star Race, NASCAR, its personnel, and its fans have had serious discussions that have perhaps avoided them for years. Current events seek racial justice and equality across the nation could’ve been swept under the rug, giving the drivers a chance to “shut up and drive”, if you will. NASCAR could’ve continued to simply frown upon continued usage of the Confederate flag, an emblem whose true, racist intentions and meanings have become more clear and well-known in recent years. It could’ve let Bubba Wallace, a rare African-American driver on the circuit, exist in an island setting, if only for keeping things “comfortable”.

But it simply refused to do so.

Not everything about NASCAR’s return and its desire for education and welcoming has been perfect. Their premature labeling of a hate crime against Wallace at the Talladega event was a (self-admitted) flaw in what was otherwise a right move to call in FBI investigators. When national protests against systemic racism began to rise across the nation, NASCAR addressed them and supported the endgame at a time when everyone would be watching: just prior to the green flag at Atlanta Motor Speedway’s 500-mile event in June.

Time will tell just how effective this new outlook will be. Inviting a select few thousand to Bristol could perhaps serve as a good barometer. But going into the All-Star proceedings, it certainly appears that NASCAR is in a far better place and holds a much better future than it did when COVID-19 forced a two-month pause back in March. The sense of unity and family was perhaps best displayed after the aforementioned Talladega incident. Even if the noose was determined to not be a hate crime against Wallace, the mere thought of a threat brought the community together. Prior to the 500-mile race’s invocation and national anthem, drivers pushed Wallace’s No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet to the front of the field and let the world know that such hatred would not be tolerated on their watch.

I want the weekend to be remembered by…I guess a good word would be ‘unity’, everyone coming together and showing support,” the Talladega winner Ryan Blaney remarked after the race. “I hate focusing on the bad things because that’s what gets a rise out of people  But I feel like what everyone has said the last day has really shown that it’s not going to be tolerated anymore. We’re all going to stand behind the people who are mistreated.  That just shows what a family we are. We’re competitors all on the racetrack, but at the end of the day, we’re one big traveling family. We’re going to support anybody who we compete with. If they get threatened in a way, we’re going to have their back.”

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“I don’t want (Talladega) to be remembered as a terrible day or a bad day in NASCAR,” he continued. “I want it to be remembered as there was an incident and we all overcame it together, showed that we were not going to take it anymore, man. I’m getting sick of this (stuff). It’s not something that he should deal with.”

Speaking of operating during the ongoing health crisis, NASCAR’s ongoing efforts have allowed a grieving nation a rare semblance of normality. Along with golf, auto racing is perhaps the easiest sport adhere to social distancing mandates. It’s safe to say that NASCAR has taken advantage of the scenario

Even if they were only visiting while waiting for their usual favorites to return, a sports-starved nation has turned to NASCAR in this time of (admittedly small in the grand scheme of things) need. Things have, again, failed to be entirely clean. Several crew members of Stewart-Haas Racing were revealed to have tested positive, as did seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson (who missed one race before testing negative twice in a 24-hour span to earn clearance to return).

But drivers have repeatedly stated that they feel safe in this process and hope such procedures will continue as the season continues to run through November.

“If any organization or sanction was to be ready for a challenge like this, I knew it would be NASCAR,” veteran Clint Bowyer said of the current health protocols. “We are a group that travels together and takes care of each other and looks after one another. Everybody knows everybody and in a time like this when you really have to hunker down and watch each other’s backs we do a good job of that and I think it shows.”

“I feel safe at the racetrack and I know my peers do as well. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I feel like that is a good example of what we have going on. I think we are doing a good job with it.”

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

With so much change for the better, it’s almost forgivable to forget that there’s actual racing to discuss. The efforts to compact race weekends into single-day endeavors have eliminated concepts perhaps taken for granted, like practice and qualifying. But, in the eyes of some fans and observers, the quick transition from hauler to track has allowed teams and drivers to truly test their mettle and perhaps create a more equalized environment with everyone testing out the asphalt for the first time.

Wednesday could be a look into the future from both a social and racing standpoint. The All-Star has long been an experimental ground for NASCAR’s endeavors, and Wednesday will be no exception. Cosmetically, the competing machines will have their traditional “door” numbers aligned to the right and underglow light perhaps inspired by the early films of the Fast and the Furious franchise will paint Bristol all different colors. Speaking of the Bristol visit, a track that routinely sees post-race confrontations that violate every semblance of social distancing, this will be the first time that NASCAR holds the All-Star Race at a venue outside their Charlotte hub. Restarts will also enjoy a bit of a makeover, as the “choose cone” rule will see driver debate their position either on the leaderboard or on the asphalt.

“The choose cone kind of puts the fate in your own hands. If we can execute it well, that’s my main thing,” an excited Matt DiBenedetto said of the innovation. “I’m excited about the fact of being able to choose where you restart and maybe jump a couple of rows and if you want to go in the row that’s not preferred, but you can pick up a couple of lanes or whatever, that’s kind of cool and exciting. Hopefully, we execute it well and it goes smoothly because it would be really nice for a lot of other places.”

The Cup Series season will run through November, but with the return several other professional leagues on the horizon, the All-Star event will perhaps be the last time that NASCAR will be at the forefront of the American sports fan’s imagination. But the aura behind Wednesday is anything but that of a “last dance”. Instead, it’s a celebration, a celebration of what NASCAR was and continues to be…a circuit of close, no-holds-barred racing at one of its most volatile tracks. It can also provide a glimpse into the future and create a tremendous scale for just how far the organization has come in just a few weeks.

Such an outlook is apparent among the association’s most notable names.

“I enjoy this sport. I love this sport. I am proud of this sport and proud to be a part of this sport. It has always been fun for me over the years to sell this sport to the fans or whatever the case may be,” said Bowyer, driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and a part-time commentator for Fox Sports. “A lot of things you are seeing right now, the All-Star race, things that we have wanted to do with our sport for a long time. (These are) opportunities that we wouldn’t have been able to take because of courage or business or a lot of reasons that we wouldn’t have been able to go to those measures that we were able to because of COVID.”

“There is no handbook that comes with (this situation). You have to create it and you have to learn from your mistakes quickly and put them to use. (We) certainly have done that with NASCAR.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR: Ryan Blaney comes home first in an emotional, wild Talladega thriller

An eventful afternoon of NASCAR Cup Series racing at Talladega Superspeedway ended with Ryan Blaney taking the win by a minuscule margin.

Blaney, Ryan Blaney.

Deja vu descended upon Talladega Superspeedway on Monday afternoon, as the No. 12 Team Penske Ford won its second consecutive event, the GEICO 500 at the NASCAR Cup Series’ longest track. Much like his win in last October’s postseason thriller, Blaney’s margin of victory was 0.007 seconds. This time, he held off Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in a finish that came down to the literal final line.

Blaney’s victory was his first since the aforementioned playoff race from last October and the fourth win of his Cup Series career. He has been one of the circuits hottest drivers since it returned from the coronavirus-induced pause five weeks ago, as Monday’s posting was his sixth finish in the top four over the last seven races.

“The past month and a half has been really good for us,” Blaney said in a postrace Zoom conference. “We’ve had some really good runs. We’ve had really fast cars, had a chance to win I feel like every race the last month and a half. It just really hasn’t fallen our way. We just haven’t been in the right place at the right time or not been quite fast enough.”

“(It’s) nice to finally break through, get the first one of the year. Hopefully, this opens the floodgates here and we can get on a roll. This team has been awesome. They’ve been so much fun to work with all year.”

The thrilling finish was the finishing touch of an emotional visit to Talladega. Before the race, the NASCAR community stood in support of Bubba Wallace, the driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet. After the race’s postponement from its original date on Sunday, NASCAR revealed that a noose had been found in the garage stall of Wallace, the only African-American driver on the circuit.

Shortly before the green flag flew, drivers and crew members stood alongside Wallace as his car was wheeled to the front of the field. With team owner and NASCAR legend Richard Petty by his side, the racing community stood behind the No. 43 pair during the invocation and national anthem. Each of Wallace’s 39 competitors then embraced him, starting with his close friend Blaney. The two have been racing alongside each other since they were each 10 years old.

“I think it’s great that everyone rose up, Bubba included, and really came together,” Blaney said of the prerace demonstration. “I don’t want it to be remembered as a terrible day or a bad day in NASCAR. I want it to be remembered as there was an incident and we all overcame it together, showed that we were not going to take it anymore.”

“You may not like each other all the time, may tick each other off on the racetrack from time to time. (But) at the end of the day we’re going to support each other. What really got me was when we got Bubba’s car to the front there, he had to take a little bit to pause and compose himself because it was a very emotional moment for him. I think it was emotional for him because everyone was supporting him. It’s just something different that I couldn’t personally be a part of because I’ve never been in Bubba’s position, but I’m going to support him the best I can.”

Under a new technical rules package, competitive racing dominated the day. Monday’s race featured 177 passes for the lead under green flag conditions, with 19 drivers leading at least one lap. A tightly-packed battle for the lead was set to be altered by fuel mileage, but Jimmie Johnson’s spin on the penultimate lap set up a two-lap overtime finish. Several cars pitted for precious fuel, but Blaney stayed out to pace the field alongside Kevin Harvick.

Harvick got off to a quick restart thanks to a push from Chris Buescher, but the field narrowed up as a get-together in the penultimate turn took out several cars. As the lead pack reached the start/finish line for the final time, Blaney took the lead and made contact with Erik Jones and John Hunter Nemechek. Further chaos erupted as the field completed the final lap, but Blaney was able to narrowly steal the victory away from Stenhouse. A spinning Aric Almirola finished the race backward but came home in a respectable third-place while Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Jones respectively rounded out the top five.

Blaney’s win was his first under new crew chief Todd Gordon and the fifth win for Team Penske this season (teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have two each). He also becomes the first driver to win consecutive Talladega events since Jeff Gordon swept the yearly couple in 2007.

The Cup Series will return to Talladega for a playoff event in October.

Halfway through its regular season, Cup proceedings now turn to a weekend doubleheader at Pocono Raceway, the first of its kind. The Pennsylvania landmark, known as the “Tricky Triangle” will run the Pocono Organics 325 on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox) and will immediately follow it up with the Pocono 350 on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, FS1). Entries from each of NASCAR’s lower-tier national series will precede each event.

Race Notes

  • Toward the end of the first of two 60-lap stages, the event was stalled by a 57-minute rain delay. Rookie Tyler Reddick won the stage, becoming the first freshman to do so since Daniel Suarez at Watkins Glen’s 2017 event. A late stop for fuel relegated Reddick to the 20th position, but he departs Talladega as the holder of the final playoff spot.
  • Monday’s event welcomed 5,000 fans to Talladega, which normally draws crowds of about 175,000.
  • Wallace was in contention for most of the day and even led a lap, but low fuel forced him to pit during the Johnson-induced caution. He would finish 14th and be applauded by the crowd that was admitted.
  • Nemechek was the top finishing rookie, overcoming a spin at lap 96 of 188 to come home eighth.
  • Chase Elliott briefly took the standings’ points lead from Harvick, but a crash at lap 135 ended his day. He was one of four drivers whose day ended due to crash damage, joining Brennan Poole, Joey Gase, and Austin Dillon. Matt Kenseth’s rear hub issues relegated him to a last-place posting in 40th.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Drivers ready for fresh, new chaos at Talladega

NASCAR’s visits to Talladega Superspeedway have always been unpredictable, but adjustments to Sunday’s race could bring a new form of bedlam.

The NASCAR Cup Series’ yearly pair of visits to Talladega Superspeedway produce untold gallons of sweat even during their normal visits in April and October. Affectionately known as “‘Dega”, the longest track on the circuit (2.66 miles) routinely hosts tightly-packed racing and speeds that regular linger around 180-190 miles an an hour. These factors often play a big role in producing “The Big One”, the name given to the multi-car pile-ups that can turn contenders into afterthoughts in the blink of an eye.

Now add a new rules package and a lack of practice and testing…all on the first full day of summer.

The potential for chaos in Sunday’s GEICO 500 (3 p.m. ET, Fox) became so great that NASCAR forced James Davison to push his series debut a week. Davison, an Australian-born driver whose experience has come mostly on the open-wheel and sports car disciplines, was set to pilot the No. 77 Chevrolet for Spire Motorsports (the car that won last year’s rain-shortened summer race at Daytona with Justin Haley behind the wheel), but NASCAR rescinded their approval just days prior to the race. Davison will instead premiere at next weekend’s doubleheader at Pocono Raceway and was replaced by B.J. McLeod (who will start 30th).

NASCAR’s ability to be one of the few American sports leagues running during the coronavirus pandemic has been built on its ability to shorten race weekends from a whole weekend to a single day. Cup Series haulers arrived at Talladega on Saturday evening while the lower-tier Xfinity circuit ran its 300-mile event (won by Haley). In this shrinking process, practices and qualifying have been eliminated (save for a session prior to last month’s Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte) and the field has been set by either inverting the finishing order from the prior race or through a random draw. That latter format is how Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota will lead the field to the green flag on Sunday. In another metaphorical victory lap for the sport, Talladega will welcome in 5,000 fans to the race.

Those who repopulate the grandstands will see 40 cars take their first laps in a track characterized by its chaos. It’s an idea that makes even some of NASCAR’s most seasoned names a bit more cautious. Kurt Busch, for example, is worried not about his No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, but rather how other cars will be as they pack into Talladega’s congested lanes.

“With our group at Ganassi and the restrictor plate races that we’ve run together, our set-up balance has been really good in practice right off the truck,” Busch said in a Friday afternoon press conference. “So there haven’t been those challenges of where are we for balance, it allows go on offense right away. The problem with that is other teams. Are they just as good right off the truck? We don’t need to be caught up in a goofy situation early-on.”

Talladega is one of two “restrictor plate” tracks on the NASCAR circuit, the other being Daytona. Installed at an engine’s intake to restrict air and limit its power, the concept was introduced in 1987 and used through last season’s Daytona 500. Currently, NASCAR uses a modified plate concept known as tapered spacers similar to the ones used on other tracks and effectively keep the cars under 200 miles an hour. These modifications are for the safety of the drivers and fans but produce tight racing that often led to massive get-togethers in the cramped asphalt quarters.

Further safety innovations now come into play as NASCAR prepares to make its first visit a restrictor plate track since the most recent Daytona 500 in February. That race ended in near-tragedy, as Ryan Newman’s No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford was involved in a violent airborne wreck while going for the win on the final lap. In the tense aftermath, Newman was removed from the mangled car and taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with serious but non-life-threatening injuries.

Two days later, Newman walked out of the hospital unassisted, accompanied by his daughters Brooklyn and Ashlyn. A head injury sustained in the accident temporarily sidelined him, but the pandemic-induced pause caused him to miss only three Cup Series events. Ironically, a safety feature known as the “Newman Bar” (a bar across the front of the car’s roll cage) was the result of Newman’s crusade to improve driver safety after he was involved in a separate airborne wreck at Talladega in 2009. Some credited the innovation for saving Newman from further injury in February.

Though Newman walked away relatively unscathed, NASCAR made some further adjustments in the name of safety to Talladega set-ups. Smaller holes in the tapered spacers will lead to lowered horsepower and the elimination of aero ducts on superspeedways could cut down on tandem drafting (further analysis on the changes can be found from Fox Sports’ Bob Pockrass here).

“The idea there is reducing the speeds of the car, slowing them down,” NASCAR’s Senior Director of Safety Engineering John Patalak explained in another conference call. “In general, when we can slow the speeds down, it’s going to be of benefit for the crash itself, for the driver in the car. It will also affect the loads on the vehicle and how the SAFER barrier responds. Directionally, it’s the right way to go.”

While the speeds are expected to be down, the fact that not a single lap has been run with such a setup only ensures the potential for chaos to rise.

Drivers, however, are confident in both their own and their rivals’ abilities to keep things under relative control. Ryan Blaney, the winner of last fall’s Talladega playoff event, was particularly excited about the new adjustments.

“There’s a fine line. You need the draft to work to where you get runs on cars, but not monstrous drafts where it’s dangerous to kind of block them and things like that,” Blaney said after a top-three run at last Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “Hopefully, we can find a fair in between. I’m looking forward to it.  I know NASCAR did their research on hopefully trying to figure out a good balance of that.”

“I’ll know in the first couple laps how big the runs are, what kind of gap I need to have to the person behind me to give me the run forward. I’ll know pretty quick what to do with the package,” Homestead winner Denny Hamlin added. “I think we have probably a pretty good idea of it anyway. These ducts are actually a pretty new thing.  Obviously the horsepower being down, that might counter the ducts a little bit with the runs.”

“These drivers are so good, they’re going to figure it out pretty quick. I wouldn’t expect anything out of the ordinary.”

For those spaced out in the massive Alabama gallery, eager to see yet another exciting installment in NASCAR’s return, that last sentence is all they want to hear when it comes to Talladega.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Ryan Blaney inspired by winless but strong run in return to the track

Ryan Blaney has yet to visit victory lane this season, but he and his No. 12 Team Penske Ford team are feeling confident moving forward.

A generation of filmgoers perhaps generalizes the NASCAR experience with “lessons” learned from the 2006 comedy Talladega Night: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. A relative catchphrase of the titular driver of the No. 26 Wonder Bread Chevrolet is “if you ain’t first, you’re last!”, an axiom bestowed upon by him by his father.

Ryan Blaney could perhaps sympathize with the Bobby mantra. He has been one of the hottest drivers on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit, having finished no worse than fourth in five of the past six races. The one exception was a 40th-place posting at Bristol Motor Speedway, but Blaney was fighting for the lead of the Supermarket Heroes 500 when his car got sideways, a situation that became disastrous when Ty Dillon was unable to avoid him and hit him across the front bumper.

Fortunately for Blaney, no cougar needs to be placed in the No. 12 Team Penske Ford for him to realize that things could always be worse.

“We could be running 20th every week, so…” Blaney said with a laugh when asked if there’s been any frustration after yet another top-four run, this one being a third-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “You’re proud of the runs that you’ve created and the speed our team’s got.  I’m proud of that.  I mean, yeah, we haven’t won yet with running really good this year.  The way I look at it is, just keep running up towards the front like that, I think those things come.”

NASCAR’s bad luck spirits have done what they could to derail an otherwise strong career for Blaney. Currently in his fifth season of full-time racing (his third in Roger Penske’s No. 12), Blaney has just three wins to his name but has been a relative mainstay at the front. He could easily have several more victories under his belt, but the “Any Given Sunday” concept normally reserved fro football has waddled its way into Blaney’s hauler. He was leading another event at Bristol, the 2018 Food City 500, when a nearby wreck involving lapped traffic gobbled up his Ford. After a runner-up finish at February’s Daytona 500, a tire issue shuffled him the top five to 19th after contending all day. Even virtual endeavors featured calamity, as he wrecked with Kyle Busch during a televised iRacing event at pixelated Texas.

Fortune has occasionally given Blaney a pass, like when he was the beneficiary of Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr.’s get-together at the inaugural Charlotte roval event during the 2018 playoffs. But Blaney has showcased plenty of talent to ensure that luck will play a minimal role when it comes to his championship aspirations.

Blaney grew up watching his father Dave succeed on the sprint car World of Outlaws and circuit and later power through a Cup Series career that saw him represent several underfunded rides. Ryan was afforded a better NASCAR start, taking over Penske’s Nationwide Series (now known as Xfinity Series) car and hopping on board Cup Series’ champion (and current teammate) Brad Keselowski’s Truck Series ride. He got to hook up with the long-running No. 21 Ford of Wood Brothers Racing in 2014, piloting a car that hadn’t finished in the owners’ points’ top 20 in over a decade.

Blaney just missed the mark with a 21st-place finish in his first full-time season and then moved the Woods’ car into ninth, their first top ten standings placement since 1994. A victory awaited at Pocono Raceway, when he passed Kyle Busch’s superteam in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the dying stages of the Pocono 400. His Penske call-up came shortly after in 2018 and playoff appearances have come at the end of each of his No. 12 seasons thus far.

So one could easily excuse Blaney if he’s not going to quarrel with a recent run of winless success that has moved him into the fifth-place slot in the current standings.

“(I’m) just proud of the speed we have, that we’re close, just little things will go a long way when you’re this close. If you have to find 15 spots worth of speed, that’s when it’s troublesome,” he said after the Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead. “Just proud of the efforts, not frustrated or anything. Hopefully, we can keep this up and keep getting a little bit better week in, week out.”

Logic should dictate that Blaney should at least somewhat struggle at the onset of the 2020 season, being armed with a new crew chief in Todd Gordon. Team Penske recently shuffled the crew chiefs of its three-car stable. Jeremy Bullins (who followed Blaney from the No. 21 days) went to Keselowski’s No. 2 stall, while the No. 12 gained Todd Gordon, the winning chief behind another teammate, Joey Logano, and his championship campaign in 2018.

Blaney credited Gordon for the No. 12’s speed in the early going.

“I feel like Todd and I have gotten along really well. We’ve communicated great,” he said. “We haven’t worked together that long, (but) to be able to communicate like that kind of in the early part of our relationship has been really nice. I look back at a lot of the finishes, bad finishes we’ve had, of me wrecking in Bristol, tire coming apart at Fontana, the caution coming out in Vegas, we’ve had some really strong runs. That’s something to be proud of.”

“I was looking forward to it, looking forward to working with Todd.  It’s been a nice run we’ve been on here. I hopefully can’t wait to get that first win together here soon. The group deserves it. We’re running good enough to do it. Just got to get a little bit better.”

The circuit now returns to the site of Blaney’s last victory, as the chaos of Talladega Superspeedway appropriate falls on this Sunday, June 21, the first day of summer (3 p.m. ET, Fox). October’s last triumphant visit allowed Blaney to automatically move onto the NASCAR playoffs’ round of eight, as he held off Ryan Newman by .007 seconds to take home the victory. The longest track on the circuit (2.66 miles) has been a special place in the Blaney family’s NASCAR endeavors. Dave previously earned third-place finishes at the track in 2007 and 2011, the best postings of his Cup career.

“I grew up there watching dad run there a lot,” Blaney said of Talladega. “Obviously the history of that place is pretty special. To do it in the Playoffs in the fashion we did it, the finish was pretty neat.”

Sunday’s GEICO 500 is set to welcome in 5,000 fans to view the proceedings, as NASCAR becomes the first North American sports league to welcome back spectators.

If Blaney hasn’t been able to lead on the race track, it’s clear that he has taken a leadership role off of it. While one of NASCAR’s most fun-loving personalities, he knows it’s anything but business as usual beyond the asphalt and grandstands. He has emerged on the frontlines to use his platform for an improving world.

The High Point, North Carolina native revealed after a runner-up finish at Martinsville Speedway’s Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 that he attended one of the peaceful demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice in Charlotte. Blaney, however, wanted to make sure that his participation was not the story, but rather encouraged that the message he was there to declare took center stage.

I’m not a person who, if I go to a peaceful protest, I’m not going to like boast it out that I’m there,” he said. “You’re there to learn. You’re there to understand and talk to people.  You’re not there to say, Look, I’m here.  I just want to go there and learn and talk to people and support them as well.”

“I think it’s great. I think a lot of people should check the peaceful protests out. You can learn a lot from people just talking and hearing their stories.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags