CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) It's time to pay attention to Ryan Blaney, the second-year NASCAR driver who is as close to a throwback as fans are going to get from this current crop of talent.
He's a second-generation Cup driver, North Carolina raised, and prefers Bill Elliott T-shirts and Talladega 500 hats to anything hip and trendy.
More important, Blaney is pretty good behind the wheel of a race car and has proven through the first six races of this season that he won't bow down to the stars of the sport. His 25th-place finish Sunday at Martinsville Speedway tells next to nothing about his race, where he ran inside the top 10 for a large portion of the day and scored points in the first two stages.
But he also mixed it up on the track with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, and had yet another run-in with Dale Earnhardt Jr. It was the second time in three weeks the two tangled on the track, and Earnhardt hit decline on his cellphone when Blaney called to discuss the incident after Sunday's race.
''Too soon ol boy,'' Earnhardt wrote on Twitter .
Blaney lives on land that Earnhardt's owns, and he landed in the doghouse when he used an expletive on his team radio about NASCAR's most popular driver. He atoned for it by giving Earnhardt's wife flowers the next week, and vowing to bring the beer the next time Blaney hangs out with Earnhardt.
Earnhardt chuckled Sunday when the two had contact yet again .
Johnson found nothing funny about how hard Blaney raced him, and grumbled on his radio about the 23-year-old.
But Blaney, at least on his team radio, doesn't back down and is adamant he can hold his own on the track. His results this year have gotten him noticed - he was second in the Daytona 500, seventh at Las Vegas and ninth at California - and he currently sits seventh in the point standings.
Blaney is theoretically a Team Penske driver, although he's farmed out to The Wood Brothers and pilots the iconic No. 21 Ford. The relationship has returned that car to prominence, and has Blaney closing in on his first career Cup victory. If looking for a new favorite driver, Blaney is the one to back before it becomes the cool thing to do.
He's off to the worst start of his storied career. He's yet to score a top-five finish this year, and the reigning NASCAR champion has never before gone four races into the season without cracking that mark. He finished 15th on Sunday at Martinsville, where he should have been among the contenders. A nine-time winner at the Virginia track, his victory there last fall was the springboard to his record-tying seventh title.
There was tension on his team radio, too, as he bickered with crew chief Chad Knaus midway through the race. Johnson was angry with Blaney and Kyle Larson, and racing harder than Knaus would have liked. So Knaus told him to take care of his car, to which Johnson complained he received mixed messages and thought he'd been encouraged to ''handle (Blaney) on the track.''
It's far too early to panic about Johnson's slow start, and important to remember that Hendrick Motorsports was off much of last year until gains were made that propelled Johnson to the title. But, it's interesting that his seventh title has created somewhat of a hangover effect at the start of this year.
RICKY STENHOUSE JR.
He brazenly moved Kyle Busch out of his way Sunday at Martinsville to stay on the lead lap, and it led to his first career top-10 finish at the track.
That's almost a win for Stenhouse, who was also fourth earlier this month at Phoenix.
Although he's only 20th in the standings, Stenhouse has a pair of top-10 finishes to open the season and he only had a grand total of six of them last year. It comes as Roush Fenway Racing has retracted to two Cup cars, and Stenhouse desperately needs strong finishes to help the struggling team attract new sponsorship.
He may be best known as the boyfriend of Danica Patrick, but Stenhouse is slowly starting to earn his own recognition on the race track.
Her 17th-place finish at Atlanta is her best so far this year, and she found herself in the middle of several incidents at Martinsville. She blamed one on good friend Denny Hamlin, and wondered on her radio why he continues to wreck her.
But the bigger story concerning Patrick came late Saturday night when she used her social media channels to intimate she and Stenhouse had gotten engaged . It was an April Fool's joke, but one she didn't claim until early Sunday when she again used social media to poke fun at those who believed the post and take life too seriously.
It was a strange move for the business-savvy Patrick, who has built a career through proper messaging and marketing. It also comes at a time when she's got sponsorship problems because Stewart-Haas Racing is locked into a legal battle with Nature's Bakery over unpaid bills.
Patrick has said she wants to get married, she'd consider having children and she just turned 35. It could very well be that Patrick's getting closer and closer to a role that doesn't include racing cars.
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