NASCAR: Ryan Blaney holds off powers of Hendrick to win at Michigan

With his win at Michigan, Ryan Blaney has now won multiple NASCAR Cup Series races in a single season for the first time in his career.

Faced with a challenge from Hendrick Motorsports’ finest, Ryan Blaney made sure that Sunday’s Firekeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway was, instead, Penske material.

Blaney’s No. 12 Team Penske Ford took advantage of a late restart, taking his first lead of the day at lap 193 of 200. He then held off a furious rally from the HMS duo of William Byron and Kyle Larson long enough to earn his second win of the season and first since Atlanta in March. Blaney held off Byron by 0.077 seconds to secure the win and his first multi-victory season at the Cup level. Larson, leader of a race-high 70 laps, finished third while Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.

Blaney started the afternoon in the third spot but quickly fell out of the top 15. His descent allowed HMS Chevrolets to take over. Chase Elliott won the first 60-lap stage in his No. 9 Chevrolet. Kyle Busch won the second stage for Joe Gibbs Racing but Elliott (8th), Byron, and Larson united to lead 136 of 200 laps. After Elliott faded after the second stage (pitting twice within 13 laps for tires), Byron and Larson appeared to do battle for the final victory.

Two late caution flags, however, set up late dramatics. A brief stop for rain set up a 16-lap shootout which was interrupted by a multi-car get-together that took out Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Christopher Bell, and Josh Berry (who was subbing for Corey LaJoie in the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet due to COVID-19 protocols). Blaney was situated in the fourth spot when the race went green again with eight to go after the chaos.

Using a strong push from Kyle Busch (7th), Blaney managed to clear the front row of Byron and Kurt Busch to secure the lead. He then held off Hendrick’s finest, denying them their 12th victory of the season. Blaney also allowed the Ford Motor Company to keep a dominant streak at MIS alive. Those repping the blue oval have now won seven straight races in Brooklyn.

Sunday’s race at Michigan was the penultimate race of the NASCAR Cup Series’ regular season. All but one spot in the 16-seed playoff field has been clinched as Kevin Harvick (14th) secured his spot on points. One final spot is up for grabs at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at the famed Daytona International Speedway on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, NBC).

Tyler Reddick (29th) missed an opportunity to expand his hold on the final seed after his teammate Austin Dillon (36th) was involved in a wreck after stage two ended, as contact with Brad Keselowski put him into the wall. Reddick leads Dillon by 22 points for the final spot, though he would lose it if a winless driver inside the top 30 in points managed to win at Daytona.

For full results, click HERE

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

How dirt racing can become NASCAR’s Winter Classic

NASCAR returns after a week off for Easter, but the world can’t stop talking about Bristol’s dirt endeavor.

To put things in layman’s terms…or at least those in terms familiar to those away from the racetrack…two of NASCAR’s national series running on dirt installed at Bristol Motor Speedway would perhaps best compared to the NHL Winter Classic.

Through dirt and simulated pond ice, the two events harken back to the competitors’ earliest days of participation in the sport. With their fledgling days long behind them, they’re placed in settings long-forgotten and far removed from the usual professional settings: dirt tracks and the great outdoors. The NHL has since expanded the original outdoor trip, begun in Buffalo in 2008, to numerous open-air events, the most recent being a four-team excursion to Lake Tahoe in February. A similar attempt to make things annual has already been announced, as the track will be re-dirtied come 2022.

NASCAR returns from an Easter break this Saturday, as the Cup Series resumes at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Yet, the Bristol dirt event, won by Joey Logano, remains the talk of the motorsports world. Little has been done to curb the conversation: the return trip to the dirt was announced while the original event was ongoing.

How can NASCAR find similar success? ESM investigates…

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Make It a Night Race

Enough can’t be said about the job that NASCAR and Bristol’s crew did during the race weekend. They recovered from torrential rains in the Sullivan County area to put on an entertaining doubleheader on Monday between the Cup and Camping World Truck Series.

One problem that stood out, however, was dusty conditions that led to a slew of caution flags and wrecks in the premier Cup event. The dust issue was only exacerbated by late afternoon settings that left drivers temporarily blind in certain areas of the track.

“For fans’ sake, for visibility of the drivers’ sake, I think a lot of the wrecks happened because of the dust and we couldn’t see anything,” third-place finisher Denny Hamlin noted.

Future dirt events could benefit from prime time settings at night. For as many changes that the current schedule has made, the current Cup slate is surprisingly low on night races as there are only three on the pre-playoff ledger (Martinsville, Charlotte, Daytona) before each of the first four postseason events commence after sundown.

Bristol is already well revered for its night event (set to close the opening round of the playoffs). Putting the dirt race at night, much like the Truck Series did for its proceedings at Eldora Speedway (2013-19) could truly give the event a primetime feel

“I do think that racing at night is the key to this,” Logano said. “I think that brings some of the moisture up from the dirt. I think that would help. Plus you don’t have the sun glaring through the dust. That’s what made it really hard through turns one and two. You couldn’t see.”

 (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Change the Venue

When the Winter Classic was introduced, they didn’t keep things eternally situated in Western New York. Outdoor hockey fanfiction could write a whole book, with the aforementioned Lake Tahoe setting being the most ambitious to date. NASCAR can benefit from a similar change of pace.

The NASCAR schedule has been through plenty of (welcome) upheaval as is. Bristol’s dirt edition is the first of five weekends where the Cup Series will make its maiden voyage (the next being the May 23 event at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin). But it’d certainly be interesting to see what other tracks, perhaps Bristol’s fellow short circuits like Martinsville and Richmond, would look like in new settings.

Over the past year, we’ve seen drivers adapt well to new settings, whether it’s running well on new tracks like Bristol covered in dirt or Daytona’s road course. Logano feels like his fellow drivers would be able to solve the quandary of other venues, much like he was able to at Bristol.

“I think more than anything, (the Bristol race) really shows the talent in this Cup level, right? Racecar drivers are racecar drivers, they’re going to figure it out,” Logano said. “You give them time, a few laps, they’re going to figure out how to make a race car go fast.”

“The amount of good racing we saw (at Bristol) throughout the field in very challenging conditions, a very slick track and very dusty, you can’t even see where you’re going, you saw guys that never even raced on dirt be pretty good. It goes to show that the talent in this NASCAR Cup level is something else.”

(Photo: Courtesy of NASCAR)

Finalize the Set-Up

Dirt racing has been introduced to the Cup Series at an interesting time. This season will be the final season where drivers run the Gen-6 car, as the “Next Gen” unit (featuring wider, single-lug nut tires, a new chassis, and independent rear suspension) is set to debut next season after the ongoing health crisis pushed things back a year.

Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler, whose No. 22 Ford was piloted into victory lane by Logano, noted just how important getting the Next Gen setup right would be in 2022, especially with the dirt race potentially retaining its early spot in the Cup schedule.

“If this car was a challenge, it’s going to be a whole other set of challenges. Certainly early in the season for the whole industry, so we’ll still be kind of new to that car, which will make it even more challenging,” Geisler, a former Cup Series crew chief, said. Runner-up finisher Ricky Stenhouse Jr. suggested finding solutions for longer tire runs.

“Our Kroger Camaro was really good in the long run today. I didn’t have the short-run speeds so I needed those long runs. So hopefully with the package that we have when we come back, we can get those 75-lap, 100-lap runs,” Stenhouse, driver of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet, said. “Next year is going to be just as much of a toss-up with a different race car.”

The circuit also has a year to review any changes they’d like to make to raceday procedures. While the Bristol event was a clean race, some elements certainly take some getting used to, namely the pit stops that took place during scheduled breaks through stage endings and competition cautions. The dust factor was combated by reverting to single-file restarts, which had been eliminated back in 2009. 

The drivers adapted very well to the changes, but finalizing the setups and format should be imperative. There will be enough to get used to with the Next Gen making its official debut. If there’s one less thing to worry about, drivers and teams can focus solely on competing and building on what was already a strong showing.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Ryan Blaney on acting and improving as series hit Phoenix

Ryan Blaney’s acting up in more ways than one on the NASCAR circuit, earning first top-five of 2021 and guest-starring on The Crew.

As the world reaches its first full year under the ongoing pandemic, many have taken the time to reflect on where they’ve been and how they’ve grown as welcome normalcy begins to inch its way back into society.

The sensation is coming full circle for the NASCAR Cup Series, which will return to Phoenix Raceway on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox). Recently refurbished, Phoenix hosted the last NASCAR event with the traditional trappings and fanfare normally seen on race weekend, including fully open grandstands. The ensuing event at Atlanta was postponed five days after Joey Logano took home the checkered flag in the desert.

That week was slated to be a forgettable one for Ryan Blaney. He was likely eager to get past Phoenix, as his No. 12 Team Penske Ford came home 37th after it was involved in a wreck with Denny Hamlin on lap 59 of 312. But he remembers being at Chase Elliott’s house in Georgia and that he and his close friend were on their way to the track before they received the shutdown notice.

“We were reading things of NBA shutting down and things like that, so we didn’t really know what was gonna happen, so we were about to head out the door and they said it got canceled,” Blaney recalled during media availability this week. He extended sympathy to what was happening to his fellow teams and competitors but lamented the loss of livelihoods beyond the track.

“It was a difficult thing for everybody on the teams and things like that, but in the bigger picture, it was very difficult for people around the world, any job,” he said. “It changes everyone’s lives, so it definitely doesn’t feel like a year. Hopefully, we’re making progress on this thing of getting the world healthy again, but it’s changed the way that our sport has operated.”

The two-month stoppage came at a strange time for Blaney and Team Penske. Prior to the 2020 season, the team played a de facto game of musical chair with the team’s crew chiefs. Blaney was assigned the services of Todd Gordon, a Camden, NY native and 2018 Cup Series champion alongside fellow Penske rep Joey Logano.

The pairing struggled in the early going after a runner-up finish at the Daytona 500, capped off by the wreck at Phoenix. But once NASCAR returned in mid-May at Darlington, Blaney rattled off top-four finishes in six of the next seven races, a stretch capped off in a photo-finish victory at Talladega.

A brutal first-round of the playoffs stifled the No. 12’s momentum, though his teammates Logano and Brad Keselowski were in contention for the championship at the return trip to Phoenix for the season finale last fall. But Blaney was pleased with what the team has been able to accomplish over the past year.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do, the whole team,” Blaney said. “(When) everything shut down, I thought we did the best we could of still communicating and unload with no practice and trying to make the most of it, so it’s just nice to build off of last year, coming back with the same people on your team I think really helps figuring out what you need to do to be better.”

Blaney had to rediscover his 2020 resilience when the ongoing season got off to a painful start at Daytona. Late contact with Elliott cost him a chance for the win at the Busch Clash exhibition before he was caught up in an early “Big One” in the main event. Another wreck with Aric Almirola ended his chances at the third race at Homestead, putting him in a 24th-place hole in the standings. With different winners emerging in each of the first few races thus far, Blaney sat in a somewhat-precarious 24th-place spot.

But the No. 12 crew got things together at Las Vegas, rounding out the top five behind winner Kyle Larson. It was the first time this season that he ran in the top five after the tough start to the year. He currently holds the 15th and penultimate playoff seed in the Cup Series playoff standings, three points ahead of first man out Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

“We’ve struggled getting going this year, but just unfortunate things happened.  It was nice just to have a solid run.  I didn’t think we had a car that could contend for the win,” Blaney said. “We all thought at Homestead our mile-and-a-half cars weren’t great and we put a lot of work in before Vegas changing some stuff up and it showed, so I apply that to both packages and definitely do that here this weekend for Phoenix going forward.”

Blaney will start eighth for Sunday’s race at Phoenix, the Instacart 500. Prior to last season’s wreck, he posted consecutive third-place finishes in the desert and recovered to sixth in the 2020 season finale, second-best amongst the non-championship contenders.

But the track on everyone’s mind in the near future is undoubtedly the newly muddied Bristol Motor Speedway, which will host the Cup Series’ first-ever dirt race on March 28. While Blaney hasn’t taken to iRacing like many of his compatriots, he might have a resource few other drivers own: secondhand experience through his father.

Blaney’s father Dave, who ran nearly 500 races at the Cup level, is an accomplished dirt racer in his own right, earning the 1995 World of Outlaws championship. The younger Blaney believes that the biggest factor in this unchartered endeavor will be the unpredictability of stock cars racing on dirt.

“It’s nice we have practice and it’s nice to have a dad that I can maybe talk to about what he thinks,” Blaney said. “His sprint cars are way different than what we’re gonna be driving, but just as far as looking at the dirt track, if it’s slicking off, if there’s a little bit of moisture everywhere, that’s just kind of heads-up.”

“You can expect all you want to, but until you get there and you see what the track is like and how much water they’ve put down on it, if it’s rubbering up, if it’s really slick, that’s just game time stuff.  That’s what makes those dirt guys so great at what they do is they have to notice that every single lap and it changes every lap and they have great ability to really switch up what they’re doing.”

Like many innovators during the health crisis, it would appear that Blaney picked up a new skill during the lockdown period. Blaney guest-starred in a pair of episodes of The Crew, a Netflix comedy series starring Kevin James.

Surprisingly, however, it’s not the only screen credit to Blaney’s name. He appeared on episodes of NBC’s episodic adaption of the action film Taken and the Magnum P.I. reboot on CBS. He also held voiceover roles in Cars 3 and the animated Spider-Man series on Disney XD.

Blaney would be open to more acting roles, having gained a deeper appreciation for the behind-the-scenes work of on-screen.

“I really enjoy seeing the behind-the-scenes on movie or TV sets,” It’s actually really fascinating if you’ve never seen behind-the-scenes sets of how many men and women are involved in production and preparation that are never on screen. Everybody from the writers to the director to the light person.

“There’s a lot of people that are involved with that that never get any recognition that aren’t on the TV, and it’s kind of the same with racing.  There are a lot of people in these race shops that are never at the track, things like that, but they do a lot of work, whether it’s building chassis or putting body on the car, engineer work.  I kind of compare it to that.”

But he made one thing abundantly clear: he’ll walk off the set if showbiz interferes with his racing career.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Austin Cindric reflects on Daytona debut, next steps

Cindric’s NASCAR Cup Series debut literally went up in flames, but there were plenty of positives to glean from Sunday’s race.

Austin Cindric had an epiphany in the wee hours of Monday morning on the final lap of the 2021 Daytona 500…

“Fire is hot”.

That’s what Cindric, driving the No. 33 Team Penske Ford, posted on Twitter after the race ended in a fiery finale, a multi-car wreck that also totaled the cars of his teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. The on-track damage ended the race early, as the caution was flown for safety reasons, allowing Michael McDowell to earn his high-publicized first career victory.

According to Cindric, his postrace tweet was not meant to be tongue-in-cheek, as it was the first time he had been involved in a firey accident (set off by excess fuel remaining in the cars). Armed with his health and a slight sense of humor, he was able to smile about it days later, but overall called his introduction to fire “unnerving”.

“I wasn’t trying to be a smart-alek, but it is amazing. Holy cow. The amount of heat that comes off that,” Cindric said. “There was a big fire. That was the first time I had been in a fire. I didn’t know if I was on fire or not. That was a bit unnerving, to be honest. It was a big impact. I’m fine.”

It’s a shame that Cindric’s Speedweeks, the opening festivities of the NASCAR season, will be best remembered for the chaos on the last lap. In making his Cup debut, Cindric ran in the top ten for most of the day and even led two laps after finishing the first 65-lap stage in fifth-place. It’s the first of several starts Cindric, one of the modern stars of the NASCAR Xfinity Series (the AAA-baseball equivalent of NASCAR), will make in anticipation of his full-time debut on the premier circuit. The 22-year-old will race for the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Racing next season, taking over the No. 21 Ford now occupied by Matt DiBenedetto.

Cindric was officially credited finished 15th in the main event. Prior to the wreck, a miscommunication on pit road pushed him toward the back of the lead-lap field. He previously overcame pit road disaster, in this case a speeding penalty, in the Bluegreen Vacations Duels to qualify for the 500. The No. 33 finished 16th but gained some assistance when Ryan Preece finished ahead of Ty Dillon to secure the “open” spots available.

Cindric was pleased with the way his Cup endeavors went overall. He earned some positive feedback from Penske teammate Logano, with whom Cindric united as a draft partner for a good portion of the evening. Logano’s No. 22 Ford was leading on the final lap before McDowell’s victorious move and chaos erupted to close things out. Working with teammates was a fresh experience for Cindric, who operates as a one-driver show in Penske’s Xfinity program, where he represents the same numerals as Logano. Cindric won last season’s Xfinity Series championship, Penske’s first since Keselowski also won in the 22 back in 2010.

“I definitely wanted (Logano’s) feedback as far as things to do better and things we could work on moving forward,” he said. “He is really positive and really strong at that discipline of racing. It is great to have guys to lean on. I haven’t had teammates in a few years so to have guys to bounce ideas off of but also in an application where we can work together and make ourselves stronger as an organization is a great tool to have.”

“I’m a competitor so I’m frustrated by the missed opportunities,” Cindric continued. “But for me, it’s a first step of establishing myself amongst those drivers. Obviously, speedway racing is a much different discipline than a lot of the other race tracks we go to. I definitely know I have a lot more to learn and I am excited for the next opportunity to drive the 33 car, wherever that track may be, and try to keep building that momentum moving forward.”

Cup Series regulations allow for a handful of starts at the top level without sacrificing Rookie of the Year status. Cindric is expected to pilot the part-time No. 33 again at some point this season, but his next entry has yet to be determined. He hinted that he probably won’t return to the summer Daytona race in August or visit the other superspeedway at Talladega, as Cindric would like to get a taste of the different kinds of tracks the circuit has to offer.

“I want to get the experience and I think the intent on the team as well is to get me experience at intermediate, short tracks, and road courses,” he said. “As much as we can get done in the short schedule we have planned. That’s why I haven’t said any race tracks because I don’t want to commit to anything knowing that some of it is out of our control. That’s the intent.”

On the Xfinity front, Cindric began the defense of his 2020 title on a strong note, winning the season-opening Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. 300 at Daytona. NASCAR’s national series now returns to the Daytona road course, where Cindric led 21 of 52 laps en route to victory the Xfinity circuit’s maiden voyage on the track. Cindric will start in the front row for the return trip on Saturday (5 p.m. ET, FS1) next to Brett Moffitt.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Team Penske

Team Penske accounted for half of the NASCAR Cup Series’ final four title contenders, but they feel they can do better.

2021 Team Penske Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Brad Keselowski 2 Jeremy Bullins Discount Tire/AutoTrader
Ryan Blaney 12 Todd Gordon Advance Auto Parts/BodyArmour/Menards
Joey Logano 22 Paul Wolfe Shell/Pennzoil
Austin Cindric (part-time) 33 Brian Wilson Verizon

History

Well regarded for his endeavors at both the NASCAR and open-wheel levels, Roger Penske’s first trek into the former came in 1972. After moderate success with Bobby Allison throughout the 1970s (four wins and a pair of fourth-place finishes), Penske left the sport after the 1980 season but returned 11 years later to enjoy prosperity through the “Blue Deuce”. Back by sponsorship from Miller Lite and the talents of 1989 champion Rusty Wallace, the No. 2 Ford won 36 races between 1991 and 2001. During that time, Penske opened a second car, the No. 12, driven by Jeremy Mayfield (1998-2001) and later Ryan Newman (2002-08). A third car began racing in 2004, becoming the No. 22 seven years later.

Wallace retired after the 2005 season, leaving the No. 2 to fellow Cup champion Kurt Busch. Former Hendrick Motorsports protege Brad Keselowski ventured over to the No. 2 in 2011 and brought home the organization’s first Cup championship the year after. Another transfer, Joey Logano from Joe Gibbs Racing, brought the title back to Penske six years later in the No. 22.

2020 in Review

One of the most-discussed transactions in NASCAR last season was the great crew chief swap at Team Penske, Jeremy Bullins, Todd Gordon, and Paul Wolfe all moving to different pit boxes. All things considered, the gambit paid off, especially in a season where on-track activities were mostly limited to the race itself.

Logano won two of the first four races of the 2020 season at Las Vegas and Phoenix before the coronavirus-induced pause put things on hold. Once things rebooted, it took a while for Logano to regain his form, but Ryan Blaney took the June race at Talladega while Keselowski won at Charlotte, Bristol, and New Hampshire, allowing all three Penske cars entry into the playoffs.

While Blaney was eliminated after the first round, Keselowski won a playoff race at Richmond and finished no worse than sixth in the three-race semifinal. Logano regained his championship and advanced to title contention at Phoenix with a win at Kansas (also winning that venue’s summer event). The No. 22 would lead all but two of the first 119 laps at the finale, but the Penske duo proved to be no match for champion Chase Elliott. Keselowski was the runner-up while Logano came home third.

Meet the Drivers

Brad Keselowski

Experience: 12th full season
Career Cup Victories: 34 (last: Richmond, fall 2020)
2020 finish: 2nd
Best standings finish: 2012 champion

Keselowski has quietly amassed quite the ledger since the 2016 season. He has won at least three races in each of the five seasons and has been in contention for the championship twice in that span. True to form in terms of showing up when it “matters”, Keselowski noted to the media this week that, after winning the 600-mile event in Charlotte last year, he has victories in each of NASCAR’s supposed “crown jewel” races…with the exception of the season-opening Daytona 500. The others are considered to be at Charlotte, Darlington, Indianapolis, and Talladega.

“I’m one crown jewel away from having them all, which is really cool and special for me,” he said. “It means a lot to me personally, so that’s definitely on the list is trying to get Daytona to come together and not get wrecked, but I think the team is pretty good and really happy with a lot of people I’m working with. Jeremy has got an incredible attitude that is really healthy for our team and it was a really fresh, new challenge for me personally last year. I still have hunger and eagerness to achieve more results and that opportunity is coming up real quick here in the next few weeks, so nothing is taken for granted. Everything has to be earned.”

Keselowski’s fate was one of the most talked-about rumors in NASCAR last season, as many felt he was destined to return to Hendrick Motorsports to take over the No. 48 Chevrolet that Jimmie Johnson was set to leave behind. But Keselowski re-upped with Penske for at least another year and there’s little to suggest that the relationship has deteriorated. Keselowski was particularly enthused by his relationship with Logano, as the two have collaborated in each of the last nine seasons.

“He immediately made me a better driver with a number of weaknesses I had,” Keselowski said of Logano. “I don’t think I was a very good qualifier. The things I was doing on the plate tracks some were good and some were bad, and he taught me a few good habits. He definitely made me up my game on restarts, so overall I think he’s made me better and I would hope that he would feel the same way that I challenged him to be better in other ways. So, I think that’s ultimately what would be your goal, is that you would have two teammates that make each other better.”

Ryan Blaney

Experience: 6th full season
Career Cup Victories: 4 (last: summer Talladega, 2020)
2020 finish: 9th
Best standings finish: 7th (2019)

It’s hard to complain about Blaney’s Cup Series career. The son of sprint car legend Dave, Blaney’s first win ended Wood Brothers Racing’s 16-year winless drought at non-superspeedway tracks. Last season, his win allowed him to become the first driver to win consecutive races at Talladega since Jeff Gordon swept the 2007 set (also becoming the first Ford representative to pull it off since Buddy Baker in 1975). He led a career-best 668 laps last season, good for seventh in the Cup Series and just ahead of defending champion Kyle Busch. But Blaney struggled throughout the summer, earning only a single top five finish in the 13 races after Talladega. Those struggles followed him into the postseason, and he was a surprise first-round elimination. Blaney did manage to close things on a strong note, earning top tens in all but one of the last seven races (including a runner-up at the penultimate race at Martinsville).

Blaney knows that it’s time to show more, especially if he wants to solidify his status as one of the faces of NASCAR.

“I’m 27. It’s time to get rolling here and winning multiple races throughout the season and try to make it to the (final four),” Blaney said. “That’s something I haven’t done yet, so it’s definitely time to step up and I think we have all the right tools in place to do so, it’s just about applying all of them and really capitalizing on moments. Great athletes and great players, they capitalize on big moments. That’s just what we have to put in our heads and put in our minds.”

Joey Logano

Experience: 12th full season
Career Cup Victories: 26 (last: fall Kansas, 2020)
2020 finish: 3rd
Best standings finish: 2018 Champion

It feels like only yesterday that Logano entered the Cup Series with the nickname “Sliced Bread”. The Middletown, Connecticut native has more or less lived up to the hype behind such a name, winning the 2018 title and finishing no worse than fifth in each of the last three seasons.

Logano is ready to race “anything” as he goes into his 12th season on the full-time circuit. The biggest change in his repertoire has been his on-track confidence, which he spoke about in detail earlier this week. He’s also thankful for the tough times that have gotten him to this point in his career.

“As a younger driver or someone coming in, I went through (tough times) where I got my butt kicked and came in very confident thinking I was gonna be the man and then quickly realized I was not even the boy,” he said. “I was in trouble and being able to kind of overcome that has really helped me a lot now. I’m glad I’ve gone through that. Those are the experiences that I absolutely love that I had because it’s made me into who I am today, but in the moment it’s hard. It’s not fun, but it makes you stronger for sure.”

Austin Cindric (part-time)

Experience: 1st season (No previous Cup Series starts)
Career Cup Victories: N/A
2020 finish: N/A
Best standings finish: N/A

Penske will field a part-time third car for Cindric, the defending Xfinity Series champion. Cindric will protect his title in Penske’s No. 22 Ford before joining the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers in 2022.

While Cindric’s full schedule is subject to change, he will definitely attempt to reach the Daytona 500 through the 150-mile qualifying events on February 11, three days before the engines fire for the main event. Cindric won’t be the only talented name fighting for a spot. He’ll be joined by fellow Xfinity finalist Noah Gragson and former Truck Series runner-up Ty Dillon, all while preparing for the 300-mile Xfinity opener on the same weekend.

“I think you always as a race car driver, whether you have a good year, a bad year, or the best year, you have to continue to better yourself whatever that level is because everyone else around you is gonna keep stepping that up,” Cindric said of his 2021 goals. “I have some great opportunities to run some Cup races and get a taste for what it means to race against the best, because ultimately that’s what I want to be one day, is to race against the best and the best of the best.”

Outlook

Keselowski and Logano will be constant contenders in 2021 and no one would be surprised if they reprised their roles in the final four. The real wild card is going to be Blaney, and if he can take the next step in his development. Winning multiple races, preferably prior to the playoffs, would be a great display of power, and there are high hopes he can do it relatively early. Blaney was the runner-up in last season’s Daytona 500 and placed third at Homestead-Miami, the site of the third event of the year.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Xfinity Series champ Austin Cindric to attempt Daytona 500 run

Cindric, 22, will attempt to make his first NASCAR Cup Series start in a fourth car fielded by Team Penske.

Chase Elliott won’t be the only defending champion racing at Daytona in three weeks.

Team Penske has confirmed that Austin Cindric, the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, will attempt to appear in the upcoming Daytona 500. Cindric will drive a temporary fourth car for team owner Roger Penske, the No. 33 Ford. Veteran engineer Miles Stanley will serve as his crew chief.

“There is a lot to be excited about heading into Daytona,” said Cindric in a team-issued statement. “It doesn’t really even need to be said that the Daytona 500 is the biggest crown jewel race in NASCAR and one of the biggest races in the world – so to have a shot to be in the show while driving for Roger Penske is a big opportunity.”

Since the extra Penske car doesn’t have a charter, which guarantees entry and part of the final race purse, Cindric will have to race his way into the main event through one of the Bluegreen Vacations Duels on February 11 (7 p.m. ET, FS1). Other notable names in that situation include Cindric’s fellow Xfinity Series competitor Noah Gragson (likewise seeking to make his Cup debut in the No. 62 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet) and David Ragan, winner of the 2011 summer event at Daytona.

“Qualifying our way into the race as an ‘open’ car will be a big challenge,” Cindric said. “I look forward to working with Miles and all of the guys on the No. 33 team, while also continuing my focus on winning back-to-back Xfinity Series Championships.”

Cindric, 22, remains the full-time driver of Penske’s No. 22 Ford on the Xfinity circuit. Last season’s championship run featured an incredible eight-race stretch over the summer where he won five races and finished no worse than third. His championship moment came in November at Phoenix, when he passed fellow championship contender Justin Allgaier on the final lap of the Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200. He joined Cup compatriot Brad Keselowski (2010) as the only drivers to bring home an Xfinity title in a Penske vehicle. Cindric, the son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric, also placed third in the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series standings.

Stanley joined Team Penske in 2013 and has worked as an engineer on Joey Logano’s No. 22 (2013-19) and Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 (2020). He helped Logano take home the 2018 Cup Series title, the second for Penske after Keselowski’s championship run six years prior.

The 2021 Daytona 500 will be run on February 14 (2:30 p.m ET, Fox) with the 300-mile Xfinity Series opening being staged the day before (5 p.m. ET, FS1).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR Championship 4 preview: Joey Logano

With his declaration of being the favorite and propensity to win no matter what, Joey Logano doesn’t want friends…he wants a NASCAR title.

We’ve been through a lot in the social distancing era, so it’s downright shocking to go back to the early stages of 2020 and realize that, yes, that indeed happened in 2020.

The Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl. The NBA All-Star Game came back from the dead under a new scoring format. XFL 2.0 came and went. Joey Logano won the first race at the new site of NASCAR’s championship finale.

Logano was the man to beat before the world stopped, earning two wins over the first four events of the 2020 season, the latter being the Fan Shield 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 8. He managed to get the best of an eventful race, evading several late-race cautions and restarts earn a victory in overtime before the COVID-19-induced pause commenced.

“It does feel like a long time ago when we were out there.” Logano said with a laugh when asked about the victory earlier this week. “So many things have happened since then, I think that’s why.”

Eight months later, the NASCAR season finale is ready to descend upon the desert on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC). It’s the first time that the championship finale will be held at the recently-renovated facility after over two decades at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Logano captured his first NASCAR Cup Series title in 2018.

Alas for Logano, there’s not as much he can take from his car in that event as he would like. In adjusting to life after the pandemic, the weekend staples of qualifying and practices have been almost entirely erased. The starting lineup has been instead been determined by random draws and statistical formulas. Logano was originally set to start second but moved up to pole position after Chase Elliott failed prerace inspection.

“There’s definitely things you can go back on,” he said. “That’s really all we have, to be honest with you. We don’t have the opportunity to try many new things without practice, right? You don’t want to go too far outside of the box. You know what worked for you in the spring. We had a very fast car, overcame a lot of adversity, still won the race. It just shows that we had a very good car. We can make some tweaks here and there to the setup probably, some things that we feel very confident in will be better, but we’re not going to step way outside the box. It’s just kind of what we got. Even though it feels like a year and a half ago when we were out there, that’s really what we have to go back on, is our notes from that race.”

The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford is no stranger to big moments in his NASCAR career. Heck, this is a driver that was bestowed the nickname “Sliced Bread” in reference to the age-old “best thing since” axiom during his days on the lower tiers of NASCAR. He has responded with the aforementioned Cup title and 26 race victories over the past nine seasons. Anti-Logano conspiracy theorists could perhaps argue that the shift to Phoenix was made to help out Logano, who has earned pair of wins and three consecutive top-ten finishes.

It’s perhaps safe to say that Logano has made his share of detractors. Kyle Busch, whose reign as Cup Series champion will end in the desert today, remarked after a contentious get-together during the opening playoff round’s closer at Bristol that Logano “had zero friends on the racetrack”. Logano replied only by wholeheartedly agreeing days later.

Yet, Logano’s aggressiveness has been a throwback to the days of “rubbin’s racing” that fans have harkened for. Alas for these fans, Logano has been taking their favorites out in the process. For example, he took away a win at Martinsville away from Martin Truex Jr. in 2018, a win that more or less led to the latter’s playoff demise. Logano went on to take home his title.

That aggressiveness is on display through Logano’s attitude when it comes to the first Phoenix finale. While other drivers have been pleased with inclusion in the championship quartet, Logano dismissed such a notion in the most polite way possible.

“I think titles are the most important thing,” he said. “Any sport you look at, the question is, How many championships do you have? Not how many times have you made it to the finals? I take some pride in saying we made it to the Championship 4 this many times. That’s great. It shows a body of work throughout the year. I know it comes down to one race, it’s all or nothing. I get that. But the trophy is what it’s about.”

“I ask this question all the time: Anyone remember who finished second last year? I don’t. I honestly have no clue who finished second last year, or third or fourth, or even who was it in. I know I wasn’t in it, that’s what I know. When I look at it that way, it’s about the championship.”

Winning a championship in a year where drivers are more or less going from their street cars to their racecars would be quite telling for any of the drivers competing, taking home the trophy in a year where on-track adjustments through practice and qualifying have been rendered null and void. It’s an honor that seems to be fueling Logano as he tries to earn that second championship to accompany the first.

“We all have the same opportunities. The rules are the same for everybody. It’s an equal playing field. There’s a trophy at the end of the day. We all had to go to the same amount of races, we all had the same opportunity to score the same amount of points and wins. “The rules didn’t change in the middle of the year…Maybe our schedule changed, the way we go about it. It’s the same for everybody.

“Honestly, yes, a championship is a championship. Doesn’t matter if you won it in 2020 when you had no practice or you won it in 2019 or 2021. Doesn’t matter, it’s a championship.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags