Tuesday, September 27 2022

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

Richard Petty turned 85 years old last month, and the racer in him is a little impatient.

He wants to see results, probably a little faster than should be expected after an organization merged into what is pretty much a new NASCAR Cup Series team.

But in general, he likes what he’s seeing out of his iconic No. 43 car on the track and the progression of the Petty GMS Racing operation.

GMS Racing bought out Richard Petty Motorsports majority owner Andrew Murstein after the 2021 season, and the Petty team moved into the GMS shop as part of the merged Petty GMS Racing.

Erik Jones, the driver of the No. 43 car, sits 14th in the point standings (he would need to win one of the three final regular-season races to make the playoffs) and already has eight top-10s. Last season, he was 24th in the standings and had six top-10s all year.

“We’re a lot better off this year than we were last year,” Petty said. “You’ve got to figure when one team gets involved with another team, it takes a little while to get everybody on the same page.

“So it’s taken us probably about half a year to sort of get everybody to understand both sides of the team, and this team is coming together.”

Away from the competition side, Petty has remained active, even brokering a sponsorship and personal services deal this year with the Hardee’s restaurant chain. And he did it in an old-school way. 

When the local Hardee’s by his Randleman, North Carolina, home burned down last year, Petty, just being a member of the small community, would go by and talk to the workers as they were rebuilding. Those conversations led to Hardee’s being on the roof of the Jones car and Petty pitching a new chicken sandwich for the restaurant.

“We got talking to the construction people, and the construction people got us involved with the company people. And then it all come about — helping us with the race car a little bit and doing a little advertising for them,” Petty said.

“I’ve probably eaten enough chicken to have feathers.”

If only making improvements on the track were that simple and organic. While Jones has run well, his teammate, Ty Dillon, is 30th in the standings with one top-10. Petty GMS Racing announced Wednesday that Noah Gragson, who has eight Xfinity Series victories in his career and made the Xfinity championship round last year, will replace Dillon in the No. 42 car next season.

“He’s now able to run for a championship [in Xfinity], and that’s what we’re looking for — getting the caliber of drivers that can win championships,” Petty said about Gragson.

Petty GMS still has to improve to be a serious championship contender. The NASCAR Cup Series these days is all about finding speed by using simulation programs to set up the cars and engineering the car to fit the templates and meet all the scans.

NASCAR introduced the Next Gen car this year in hopes of increasing parity, which it has as most of the parts and pieces must be bought from a specific vendor.

“Nobody’s all year long has just went out and really dominated,” Petty said about the Cup Series in general. “Every race we have maybe one or two cars that come out and dominate.

“And they’re not the same two they had last week. I think everybody’s still really, really in the learning stage of how to be consistent with these cars.”

But the bigger teams still have more people working on the smallest of areas to find speed.

“The deal is everybody is still learning the car,” Petty said. “We probably don’t have as many engineers and stuff as some of the top teams. We’re working on that part.”

Petty GMS finally secured one of NASCAR’s camera-and-laser scanning systems in early July. That will help the team prepare cars for the track knowing they should be within the technical parameters (and be able to see what adjustments will either be legal or illegal).

“That’s just a pretty expensive tool for us, and we’re just now getting it. A lot of teams already have had it,” Petty said. “We were a little bit behind in that territory.”

While the team looks to improve the physical parts and pieces, Petty is happy with the chemistry on the No. 43 car as Jones and new crew chief Dave Elenz are working well together. Elenz was Gragson’s crew chief at JR Motorsports before going to Petty GMS after the 2021 season, but he is expected to continue working with Jones. A crew chief for Gragson is to be determined.

Jones signed a multiyear deal last month to stay at the organization, so Petty feels good about the future of Jones and Elenz.

“They have come together really good,” Petty said. “Both of them understand what they need, and they are good at talking it out.

“We’ve got a couple of good engineers … to make adjustments to the car. It’s coming along.”

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What to watch for

All eyes will be on Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. at Richmond as they battle for possibly the one spot left in the playoffs. They can each get in with a win over the final three regular-season races, but if there are no new winners, it will come down to which one finishes higher in the standings.

Martin Truex Jr. vs. Ryan Blaney

Who makes the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs? Bob Pockrass offers his Fast Thoughts.

Blaney, second overall, is 19 points ahead of Truex (fourth overall). A driver can earn 55 points in a race without winning by finishing second and sweeping the stage victories.

Blaney sat on the pole and led the first 128 laps in April at Richmond. He finished seventh at a track where he didn’t have a top-10 finish until a year ago.

Truex has won three of the past six Richmond races and led 80 laps on his way to a fourth-place finish in April.

Both drivers likely will be threats on Sunday. The race could be a track-position affair, where drivers struggle to pass, as the other short-track races have been this year.

Thinking out loud

This will be the first August race for Richmond, which typically has had its second race of the season in September and part of the NASCAR playoffs.

In order to spice up the schedule, and possibly somewhat acknowledge that Richmond hasn’t produced the most exciting racing in recent years, Richmond’s second race was moved to August.

It also is a Sunday day race instead of a Saturday night race.

There are some who think that if this race doesn’t go well, Richmond should lose a race (there are some who already are saying that). Hopefully the heat will make the track slick and lack grip, requiring handling to come into play and potentially creating more cautions and more comers-and-goers.

But if this race doesn’t create buzz — if it has similar challenges to other short-track races this year and the August heat doesn’t excite fans — that shouldn’t result in NASCAR taking a race away from Richmond.

NASCAR should at least try to make some changes to the car in future years so that it races better at short tracks. And if that again doesn’t spice up Richmond, then maybe one race there might be enough. But a historic track such as Richmond, a track that is accessible for many on the Atlantic coast and those who live in Virginia and the Carolinas, shouldn’t have an event judged in a one-and-done scenario.

Social spotlight

They said it

“I expect to win. Maybe I’m overconfident, I don’t know. I expect to win until the door closes. … I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to turn that off until the door is closed, and you just don’t open it back up. I’m just not wired that way.” Kevin Harvick on snapping a 65-race winless streak at Michigan

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass! 

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