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.

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.

JIMMIE JOHNSON

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.

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