After running three consecutive races at tracks they’d never before competed on in Sprint Cup competition, Ryan Blaney and Jeremy Bullins now begin a stretch of races in which they have Cup experience.
The first visit to familiar territory is this weekend as the Motorcraft/Quick Lane crew returns to Texas Motor Speedway for Saturday night’s Duck Commander 500.
“Texas is one track we are certainly looking forward to going to,” Bullins said. “We had fast cars there last year but struggled through some issues that kept us from getting good finishes. We feel like we have a really good baseline and are getting more comfortable with the set-up changes we need to make for the low-downforce package.”
It’s also a return to an intermediate track, where the rookies Blaney and Bullins have the most experience together.
The last time on a mile-and-a-half track, they finished a season-best sixth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“Vegas was a great example of how that experience paid dividends for Ryan and this Motorcraft/Quick Lane team, and we feel like this weekend should be no different,” Bullins said.
It’s also a relief for Blaney and Bullins to have a stretch of racing at unfamiliar tracks behind them.
“We knew that would be a challenge, but we are also pleased with how we responded as a group,” Bullins said of the first six races of the season, which saw the team race at four tracks they’d never raced on in Cup before. “Probably Ryan's toughest challenge was Atlanta. That race featured one of the longest green flag runs we have ever seen during that race.”
“A 500-mile race at Atlanta is a physical and mental grind for a driver, and we were in position to finish 12th or 13th before getting caught up in a last-lap crash.”
Phoenix was much better for the team as Blaney and Bullins improved the handling of their Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion throughout the race and finished 10th, his second top-10 finish of the season.
“Considering we only ran a couple of short tracks during our partial season last year, this was particularly satisfying,” Bullins said.
The Auto Club 400 at Fontana, Calif., was another first-time challenge that the team overcame.
“Fontana is one of the few tracks where Ryan had never raced anything before,” Bullins said. “A lot of places he's been in a truck or Xfinity car, but our first mock qualifying run in practice was his first laps around the two-mile track.”
“Once again he showed his maturity, allowing us to treat the weekend like we have been together for years, starting practice in qualifying trim and turning in a top-15 qualifying effort.
“Like Atlanta, we were shaping up to have another top-10 or top-15 finish before a cut tire ended our day. While that was disappointing, the speed we had during that race was encouraging moving forward.”
Through it all, including the most recent race at Martinsville Speedway, the team has maintained its consistency, and Blaney heads into the Duck Commander 500 15th in the Sprint Cup standings.
The upcoming portion of the schedule offers encouragement as well.
“Looking ahead to Texas, Kansas, Bristol and Talladega, all tracks we raced at in 2015, we feel like we will make big gains and have strong runs with the experience we are taking into those events,” Bullins said. “When you combine that with our steady performances at first-time events I'm proud of how solid our team has been.”
Running well also makes the hard work of preparing for races seem well worth the effort.
“We are really having a lot of fun so far this season,” Bullins said. “We have had fast cars each week, and Ryan has done a great job everywhere we have been.
“Our pit crew is really starting to click as well. I feel like we can put together a strong stretch of races as we head into the summer months.”
Qualifying for the Duck Commander 500 is set for 2:45 p.m. eastern time on Friday, and the race is scheduled to start just after 7:30 p.m. on Saturday with TV coverage on FOX.