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NASCAR notebook: Ryan Blaney wins pole at Austin

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Mar 26, 2022; Austin, Texas, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver Ryan Blaney (12) poses for photos after winning the pole award during the EchoPark Automotive Texas Grand Prix Qualifying at Circuit of the Americas. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas — Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney will start from pole position in Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) — becoming the first multi-time pole winner of the 2022 season. It’s his second pole this year and eighth in his career.

Blaney’s lap of 92.759 mph around the 3.41-mile road course in the No. 12 Ford held up to a late-session charge by Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez, who edged Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer for the outside of the front row but was still just 0.026 seconds off Blaney’s fastest lap.

“I wouldn’t really say I’m a great road course racer by any means, I enjoy road courses a lot but never been in great contention to win one,” Blaney said. “So I would say I’m an average road course racer. And honestly what made me happy about the pole was that we were fifth in our (first round) group and barely made the Round of 10 and then picked up half a second from first round, so I was as proud we picked up that speed.”

Custer will start third, lining up alongside Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick. Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman, Penske’s Joey Logano, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin, Kaulig Racing’s Justin Haley and Penske rookie Austin Cindric rounded out the Top 10 in final qualifying.

It was quite the comeback for Blaney, 28, who went off course and hit the soft barriers during opening practice but was able to rebound to the top position when it mattered most.

“Talk about an up and down day for sure, from putting it in the barriers on my third lap and not knowing if the car was killed, if we would have to go to a backup, what it was going to take to fix it,” Blaney said, noting the incident with the barriers knocked his left-side mirrors off, preventing him from being able to really see the damage on the left side.

“I got out of the car and looked at it and it was scuffed up but not too bad,” he said. “They went through everything thoroughly and nothing was bent so got really lucky, honestly from a mistake of mine. Really lucky we hit those plastic blocks.

“And then to have speed to put it on the pole, I didn’t even know if we were going to be able to qualify after we wrecked so to come back and have a fast enough car to make it to the second round and then the final round and barely beat Daniel there was fun.

“Up and down day, glad it ended on a high note.”

Notably absent from the final 10-car round were defending COTA race winner Chase Elliott, who was 12th fastest in qualifying. His reigning series champion Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Larson was 13th fastest.

Kyle Busch, a four-time road course winner, was 15th and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. — another four-time road course winner — was 17th. Road course ace A.J. Allmendinger was 20th — fast in practice but having a hiccup in qualifying.

–Road course ringers at COTA

Practice and qualifying proved to be a bit of trouble for some in the road course “ringers” group at COTA this week. Former NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year, sports car ace Andy Lally did not get to make a qualifying lap and will have to serve a penalty at the beginning of Sunday’s race because of an inspection violation for his No. 78 Live Fast Motorsports Ford. He will start last in the 39-car field.

Joey Hand, another IMSA standout road course racer, had a tire problem in practice and the crew was unable to repair the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Ford in time for him to make a qualifying lap, so he will also start from the rear.

One of the sport’s most popular drivers, Boris Said, is returning to competition — making his first NASCAR Cup Series start since 2017 at his hometown track, Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International. Said’s best showing was third at Watkins Glen in 2005. He won a NASCAR Xfinity race in Montreal in 2010.

Said, who has been racing for four decades, will start the No. 66 Motorsports Business Management Ford 37th of the 39 cars.

–Xfinity Series qualifying

Nineteen-year-old Ty Gibbs is only making his 24th career start in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Saturday afternoon, but the way he’s driving you’d think he’s a longtime veteran. He’s had six wins already and 13 top-10 finishes — better than 50 percent of every start. His first career series victory was on the Daytona Road Course last year and he also won at Watkins Glen.

With limited testing and being relatively new to NASCAR, Gibbs credits the opportunity to work on simulators, run go-karts and watch film for his quick learning curve on these road courses. His qualifying lap Friday was 134.520 mph around the 20-turn, 3.41-mile circuit

“Ovals are so much, I think, finesse,” Gibbs said. “You don’t have as much braking markers there. You’re not as focused on that. Road courses are fun. They come in and do something different and focus on just turning right and left and I have a good time, a good flow with it.”

NASCAR Cup Series full-timer Ross Chastain will start on the outside of the front row with Gibbs in the Mario Gosselin-owned No. 92 Chevrolet — one of three Gosselin team cars that qualified in the top 10.

–Camping World Truck Series qualifying

Former NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Sheldon Creed was fastest in Friday’s qualifying session but will start the No. 20 Chevrolet from the rear of the field in Saturday’s XPEL 225 because his crew needed to change the truck’s fuel pump.

That puts No. 38 Zane Smith — second fastest in qualifying — on the pole to start the race alongside Hendrick Motorsports NASCAR Cup Series driver Alex Bowman.

Of note, Creed won a series title (2020) before earning his first pole position in the series this weekend. He is now a fulltime competitor in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and had a similarly good outing in the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet — earning a sixth place start on that grid.

–Catching up with Bubba

Bubba Wallace got a huge test of the new Next Gen car last week in an accident at Atlanta Motor Speedway — and the driver of the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota is giving a big thumbs-up to the durability and safety. It’s been quite a week for the star driver, who covered several topics Saturday with reporters.

“P1, new track record, hard as hell,” Wallace said of this accident at Atlanta. “It was a hard hit. Wednesday I was finally good. Main thing I was worried about was my shoulder because I had surgery on it in the offseason, but Wednesday I was feeling good and able to move it easily.

“Atlanta happened and I’ve got a job to come out here and continue to race. You put that behind you and race.”

Wallace said he spent some time during the week with former University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams and said he received some encouraging and useful tips on dealing with his distractors in NASCAR.

“I had never met him, I’m not a UNC fan, I’m a Tennessee fan obviously, but I became a fan of him and UNC after that night,” Wallace said.

“He said, ‘Hey man, heard a lot about you and one thing I want to leave you with before I go, the dogs are always going to be barking and the caravan is going to continue rolling.’

“You just kind of roll on with it,” Wallace recalled with a smile. “Super cool. I’d never ever had a conversation with him or even been around him and in that moment, he took the time that night to tell me that.”

To help with his road course skills, Wallace will be competing in both Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race and Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race.

“Absolutely (I need it),” he said, adding, “Only been here once, so trying to get another leg up on guys. Nothing but seat time for me so I’m enjoying it.”

–Kyle Busch looking to turn season around

Two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch met with the media on Friday and sounded optimistic that this weekend’s road course race could be a turning point in his up-and-down season. Busch, driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is ranked 11th in the standings — only a single point behind 10th place Ross Chastain — coming into the COTA weekend with three top 10s and a single top five in the opening five races of 2022.

He has four NASCAR Cup Series victories on road courses — two each at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, Calif. And four in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, including last year here in Austin. He will start 15th Sunday at COTA.

“I think the car is fine,” Busch said of his season. “We are all trying to figure it out and learn what it potentially is and what it is that makes it go fast, what the knobs are that you need to turn at particular places. I feel like we’ve had decent speed everywhere we’ve been except Phoenix. Phoenix was really bad.

“Vegas, we were fast — coulda, shoulda, woulda — California, we were okay, worked on it and came back from five laps down. … Last week was fast, probably one of the fastest cars in the field and just got caught up in a wreck.

“We don’t have anything to show of this year, which is disappointing. No stage points. That’s about it.”

–By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media.