NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - NOVEMBER 30: 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Champion Ryan Blaney speaks to the media during the media scrum at Music City Center on November 30, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - NOVEMBER 30: 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Champion Ryan Blaney speaks to the media during the media scrum at Music City Center on November 30, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images

NASCAR Champion’s Week at Nashville Notebook

Ryan Blaney’s championship was a predictable next step in a long racing journey

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Team owner Roger Penske never lost patience with Ryan Blaney, who took the next step in his NASCAR racing journey with a Nov. 5 victory at Phoenix Raceway.

With the hotly contested win, Blaney earned his first NASCAR Cup Series championship and the second straight for team owner Roger Penske.

“We just knew he was a champion,” Penske said Thursday morning during a question-and-answer session with reporters at the Music City Center. “His persona—the fans liked him.

“Putting together those last races, those last six, was amazing. The proof in the pudding was racing Kyle Larson—forget everything else—racing Kyle Larson those last 20 or 25 laps and being able to win the championship. Nobody gave it to him.”

Penske noted one particular benchmark in Blaney’s career that proved a portent of things to come. In 2017, driving for Team Penske affiliate Wood Brothers Racing, Blaney held off veteran Kevin Harvick to record his first NASCAR Cup Series victory.

Nine more victories followed over the next six years, culminating in this year’s three-win season and the Cup championship.

“When you get your first win in the series, internally it gives you confidence, and ‘Hey, I can win at this level, I can be here,’” Blaney said. “That was fantastic. Whenever you get your first one… but then you still have to prove yourself, right?

“You can’t just be one-and-done. You got to continue to try to do better and to continue to grow as a driver and as a person. But, yeah, winning for the Wood Brothers was great. That was a really special one, and it opened up a lot of doors.”

The NASCAR Cup title was the second in a row for Penske, who won the 2022 championship with driver Joey Logano. But the championship was the 12th for Team Penske over the last six years across all series, including NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA and V8 Supercars.

“You win one, and you start all over again,” Penske said. “They don’t give you an extra lap ahead of everybody after you win one. Last year, Joey did a great job, and by the way—when you think about it—last year at Phoenix, if you watched it, Ryan was a good wing man. He had a fast car at Phoenix, so we knew that he had the speed.”

For Blaney, it’s gratifying just to be part of the massive Team Penske record.

“To be a small part of that success is great,” Blaney said. “I felt the same way winning my race for the Wood Brothers. Those guys had 98 other wins, but it means a lot that you’re a small part of the journey and the success.

“I was telling people after we won that we did two ‘firsts’ for Roger this year, which was win the Indy (500, with Josef Newgarden) and (Coca-Cola) 600 (Blaney), which is fantastic, and back-to-back (Cup) championships. You don’t get to do that often—do something for Roger that he hasn’t done before—and to be able to bring that to him is definitely very special.”

Denny Hamlin’s recovery from surgery leaves the Clash in question

Perennial NASCAR Cup Series championship contender Denny Hamlin came to Nashville wearing a soft brace on his right arm to immobilize his shoulder after surgery a week ago to repair a lingering rotator cuff injury—aggravated by pulled tendons he suffered “playing sports” just before the Oct. 15 Las Vegas Playoff race.

Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, didn’t disclose the injury publicly during the season, saying he didn’t want anyone to think it served as an “excuse” during his Playoff performance. But he conceded Thursday the post-surgery situation has turned out to be more painful and involved than he anticipated.

Surgeons have recommended three months of rest and rehabilitation, so Hamlin is not absolutely certain today where he will be in the recovery process come the first race of 2024 – the Feb. 4 non-points Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum. He was reticent to say for sure yet whether he would be in the field for that exhibition event, or not.

“What I’m optimistic of is that I’ve got a great team that’s going to work on me to get this better and certainly, I find it hard to believe that I’ll have more pain in late January than what I did in the end of October and November,” Hamlin said. “Getting through those last five races was really, really hard so I think if I can get through that, then certainly I’ll be able to challenge myself enough to get back in a car sooner than what they’d want me to.”

Hamlin finished fifth in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series championship winning three races, but the right-handed 43-year-old conceded the injury did force him to rely more on his left arm completing the final part of the 2023 Playoff portion of the season schedule.

“It was painful, there were many times when they asked me to turn on a switch and I couldn’t reach it, I couldn’t touch it,” Hamlin said. “We were certainly up against the odds, but one thing is I didn’t want to use it as any kind of excuse for not making the Final Four.

“I think really our performance was as good as it possibly could be on track. I did everything I could to succeed, we just didn’t get it done for whatever reason. Certainly, I didn’t want that to be any excuse of why we didn’t perform well.

“… it’s just one of those things I grew up being a right-arm driver and during the Playoffs had to switch to holding the wheel with the left hand, so it was certainly different.”

Hamlin, was a three-race winner last season, earning his milestone 50th NASCAR Cup Series victory at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway in July and answering with a 51st at the celebrated Bristol (Tenn.) night race in September during the Playoff portion of the schedule.

Kevin Harvick has a “retirement” project at hometown speedway

Now retired from full-time NASCAR Cup Series racing after accumulating 60 victories in the premier division, Kevin Harvick is set to begin a new career as a full-time broadcaster in the FOX Sports booth.

That’s not the only activity, however, that will occupy Harvick’s attention. Kern County Raceway Park in Harvick’s hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., was purchased recently by Tim and Lisa Huddleston and renamed Kevin Harvick’s Kern Raceway in honor of the 2014 Cup champion.

Harvick’s commitment will constitute more than just providing a marquee name. He’ll be involved in plotting the future of the half-mile asphalt track.

“Bakersfield is obviously my hometown, and I view it as one of the biggest racing towns in the country,” Harvick said during a question-and-answer session with reporters on Thursday morning at the Music City Center. “When I look at the Kern facility and what it is, it’s one of the nicest short tracks in the country. It’s kind of that hidden gem that just needed a kick in the butt to kind of get restarted and reintroduced to the world.

“Working with Tim Huddleston and his family and hopefully getting that back to having the right events and the right weekly shows that it needs and everything that’s going to happen is going to be fun. I’m looking forward to that project, and those are the types of projects that I enjoy, and we’re looking forward to hopefully great things.”

Harvick raced at Kern County in 2018, finishing fourth in a one-off appearance in an ARCA Menards Series West race.

Despite rookie honors, Ty Gibbs wasn’t fully satisfied with debut NASCAR Cup season

Ty Gibbs showed up a the NASCAR Awards Banquet smiling and ready to receive his 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year trophy. But the former NASCAR Xfinity Champion said he was not absolutely satisfied with this first full-season run, even if he had plenty to be proud of.

Gibbs earned the first top-five and top-10 NASCAR Cup Series finishes of his career—posting four top fives and an impressive 10 top 10s over the 36-race season in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. He led 112 laps, including 102 laps in the fall Bristol, Tenn. night race where he finished fifth—his best overall race effort, statistically speaking. His top finish was fourth-place at the Charlotte ROVAL.

“Statistically, yes (he was happy), but I feel like I wanted to run a lot better, of course and I’m working really hard,” Gibbs said. The one thing I can take away from my [Xfinity Series] championship [last year] and all the other championships is to enjoy the journey and I am.

“And I’m working hard. Getting better every weekend is the main goal, and I feel like I accomplished that, so I’m happy with that.

“But definitely not really anything to be satisfied with until your winning, so got to keep going.”

The 21-year-old grandson of team owner Joe Gibbs said he learned many lessons throughout the season, primarily that patience is essential in racing, no matter how counter-intuitive that may sound.

“You learn over time and the way Cup series is now, there are not as many crazy moves going on as there were in Xfinity Series,” Gibbs said, allowing a smile.

“I’m not worried about showing others what I’m doing, I think for me, I’m just trying to do the best I can and when I can do that it shows others,” Gibbs added. “It’s a fine line. You can’t race to make everybody else happy but at the same time, if you do everything right and calculate everything right and are patient, usually it pays off.”

“For me, like this year, even if I wasn’t running as well, I’m still trying to figure out what I have to do to run better and win and that’s the same it will be for next year and until I retire. For me, it’s working hard during the week, having fun, but really learning where I can get better at. I want to win every week if I could, and I want to win championships too. I feel like it’s been the same motto for me since I’ve been in ARCA and Xfinity, it was how I was raised.

— NASCAR News Wire —