Children react to Kyle Larson presenting them toys at a Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo: Dustin Long)
Photo by Dustin Long

Kyle Larson helps give Boys & Girls Club kids smiles, presents

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The noise carries through the closed doors. Laughter, shouting and squealing.

The sound is tempered when the children are aligned and head into a rec room with pool tables, air hockey tables and couches. They are told to be quiet to hear the guest. Then the noise rises when Kyle Larson unveils a variety of gifts, on behalf of sponsor Target, to the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club in Northeast Charlotte.

Wednesday’s visit by Larson is part of a year of charitable efforts he and Target have focused on children. They provided toys to those affected by floods in Southern Virginia, delivered backpacks and school supplies in Darlington, South Carolina, and visited two Dallas schools to donate gift cards and books in support of Texas Motor Speedway’s Speeding to Read program.

As a father — son Owen turns 2 on Dec. 22 — such causes have extra meaning for Larson.

“With having Owen, it gives me another respect when I come here to do things like this,’’ said Larson, who was joined by Owen and girlfriend Katelyn Sweet.

Kyle Larson signs an autograph for a child at the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club on Wednesday. Larson and Target presented the Charlotte, North Carolina, club with toys. (Photo: Dustin Long)
Kyle Larson signs an autograph for a child at the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club on Wednesday. Larson and Target presented the Charlotte, North Carolina, club with toys. (Photo: Dustin Long)

The club that Larson visited is one of eight in the Charlotte area that provides a safe place for children to play.

Will Johnson, a front tire carrier for Larson’s team who also helped pass out gifts, attended such a club from ages 7-14 when growing up in Charlotte. He still talks about meeting members of the Harlem Globetrotters when they visited his club years ago.

For Larson, being around children is special because of Owen.

Larson admits parenthood provides something new every day.

“Owen knows words and stuff, but he gets so wrapped up in one word that he kind of get obsessed with it,’’ Larson said. “Water and balls and have been his favorite things to say. Over the last couple of weeks he’s really been starting to repeat a lot of words that we say. He’s learning a lot. Not too long he’ll be saying sentences.’’

Larson, who is 24 years old and coming off his first season competing in NASCAR’s Chase, said having Owen has helped him.

“I think it helped me grow up faster, kind of mature quicker,’’ Larson said. “I don’t play video games anymore, I wake up early, go to bed semi-early. You find a whole new responsibility level taking care of this child.

“You’ve got to learn a different language. I feel like I’m bilingual now. I can speak baby and interpret what he’s trying to tell me.

“Everybody says that first year is a lot work and it is but it is easier. When they turn a year old, it’s like gosh, I don’t know if I have enough energy for this. He’s got a ton of energy.’’

Owen will be busy with his family this holiday season. They’ll go to California for about a week and Larson will compete in an outlaw kart race before heading to Australia to drive in four sprint car races. He’ll return to the U.S. to race in the Chili Bowl in January. He won’t drive in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He anticipates running about 25 sprint car races in 2017 along with his NASCAR duties.

“It’s my relaxation, my vacation,’’ Larson said of racing on dirt.

Ryan: ‘Erase the Chase’ is an idea whose time had come

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CHARLOTTE – It was time to erase the Chase.

No, Monday’s announcement by NASCAR didn’t eradicate the 10-race stretch that has determined the champion of its premier series for the past 13 seasons. The structure remains largely untouched aside from a new wrinkle that carries over points from the regular season to ensure less arbitrary title outcomes.

But Monday did mark the death knell of what had become the primary pejorative in a NASCAR vernacular littered with unwieldy and unappealing terminology.

They are seemingly innocuous words that stoke the most hateful, negative and ugly reactions from passionate fans who claim precious ownership of racing like no other sport.

The Car of Tomorrow.

The top-35 rule.

The Chase.

Each of these terms, however well-intended, became the third rail for hyperbolic fan outrage on satellite radio and social media

And each of them now has disappeared into NASCAR’s dictionary dustbin of history.

The Car of Tomorrow was reconfigured and then renamed as the clever “Gen 6” car.

The top-35 rule essentially was erased and then replaced by the more benign charter system.

And now …

“I think that for all the folks that have been asking us to get rid of the Chase for years,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said with a sly smile, “this is a great day for them.”

The Chase is dead.

Long live the NASCAR playoffs.

Slapping a new title on a championship structure that has been maligned during its 13-year existent won’t be a cure-all for those who never have been fans of the format.

This admittedly is a PR and marketing exercise. It will have no impact on competition or the opinions of those who already believe the Latford points system of 1975-2003 shouldn’t have been abandoned.

There are Jeff Gordon fans who remain steadfast in their opposition to the Chase because they believe it cheated their hero out of multiple championships.

And there are others who actually will lament the disappearance of “Chase,” because they believe the term helped differentiate NASCAR.

But in an image-conscious sport desperate for corporate sponsorship, the switch to “playoffs” still matters even without an iota of on-track impact.

This isn’t a rebranding a la the Gen 6.

It’s about appropriating an existing sports term that carries major-league cachet.

The mere utterance of “Chase” became a dismissive rallying cry for many who hissed its name while railing about the system.

It’s harder to sound so disparaging when complaining about the “playoffs” (unless you’re Jim Mora). In fact, it sounds silly.

“Playoffs” are synonymous with indelible moments and must-see drama.

They connote an appealing sports conceit with an elegance and simplicity that always eluded “Chase”.

“When they’re talking about sports, people understand playoffs,” NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said. “We introduced a new word, i.e. the Chase, and we liked it at first, but when you really talk about it, when (Hendrick Motorsports president) Marshall Carlson is out talking to a sponsor, well, it’s ‘What’s the Chase?’  Well, it’s our playoffs.  And people immediately get that and they understand that.

“This is a big sport built on sponsorship for sponsors to understand, for fans to understand, and it’s a common word that most sports fans know.”

Some of us have been lobbying for ditching the Chase since NASCAR most recently overhauled it three years ago (and ratcheted up the action, intensity and pressure as a result).

But there always had been resistance to calling the Chase a playoff, despite how natural it seemed.

NASCAR heavily messaged the January 2004 news conference that introduced the Chase for the Championship. Reporters repeatedly were told by officials that “this is not a playoff” because “all of our events will continue to be Super Bowl-type races with 43 drivers competing.”

No one wanted to hurt the feelings of longtime fans asked to absorb a sea change that was antithetical to some core principles that were preached as gospel for decades.

There was major pushback on anyone who intimated that the Chase created two distinct seasons. When the Chase was introduced, NASCAR tirelessly emphasized there were no knockout rounds or points resets or anything analogous to how other pro sports handled their playoffs.

But things have changed. All that stuff has been happening in NASCAR since 2014.

There are eliminations. There are points resets (and still are with a few caveats). There is segmentation from the regular season.

It’s a playoff in every sense of the word – which is why the word changed.

The Chase is dead.

Long live the NASCAR playoffs.

Questions and answers about NASCAR’s announcement

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — OK everyone, let’s take a deep breath and we’ll get through this.

NASCAR announced enhancements to the race formats on Monday that are intended to give fans more exciting moments during a race and the season.

As with anything new, there are plenty of questions. Here are answers to those questions.

So what is it with these stages?

Each NASCAR race will be divided into three stages. Points will be awarded for the top 10 finishers in each of the first two stages. That descends one point per position. Thus, 10th place in a stage receives one point. The final stage marks the end of the race. The winner receives 40 points with second-place receiving 35 points, third gets 34 points … on the way down to 1 point for any driver that finishes 36th or worse.

When will these stages take place?

The first stage will take place approximately 25 percent into the full race distance. So, for a 400-lap race at Richmond, the first stage would end somewhere around Lap 100.

The second stage will take place about 25 percent later.

That will leave the last half of the race to be run to conclusion.

So what happens after the first stage?

Once the field completes the lap that marks the end of the first stage, the caution will come out. Pit road is then opened for any teams that wish to stop. Once the pit stops are complete, TV will go to commercial break so fans can see more green-flag racing. Once TV returns from break, the race will resume. NASCAR estimates the breaks should take about five minutes.

How do they align the field for the next stage?

The field lines up the way the cars come off pit road. If not every car pits, then they are at the front with cars that made pit stops behind them for the restart.

OK, so what about those caution laps after the segment ends? Do they count?

Yes. All laps count.

Anything else unique about the stages?

Yes, pit road will be closed for five laps before each of the first two stages end.

Wait, what if there’s a caution right before the end of a segment? Can a segment end under caution or will it be extended?

Segments can end under caution. The end of the race will still have the overtime policy.

What is NASCAR calling these stages?

Stage 1. Stage 2. Stage 3.

What about the Daytona 500?

The 500 will have segments. The top 10 finishers in each of the duel qualifying races will receive points just like a regular segment. One difference is that the segment winner will not receive a bonus point for the playoff (more on these a little further down).

So what is the maximum number of points a driver can earn in any race now?

A driver can earn as many as 60 points. That would be 20 points for the two stage wins (10 points each) and 40 points for the race win.

Wait a minute, you’re forgetting those points for leading a lap and leading the most laps, aren’t you?

No. There will no longer be bonus points for leading a lap or leading the most laps.

Isn’t there a way the race winner can score fewer points than the runner-up?

Yes. Consider if the race runner-up won both stages (20 points) and then had their 35 points for second. That would be 55 points. Say the race winner failed to score a point in either stage. Thus, they would have only 40 points (for the win) for the event. So, the runner-up could score 55 points and the winner 40 points.

What else was announced?

The regular-season points leader after the 26th race will be rewarded — something many fans had requested.

How will the regular-season champ be rewarded?

The regular-season winner will receive 15 bonus points that carry over to their total once the playoff field has its points reset to 2000.

Is that it?

No, the top 10 drivers leading into the playoffs will receive a bonus. The second-place driver in the standings after the regular season ends will earn 10 playoff points, third place will earn eight points, fourth place will get seven points and so on. All playoff points carry through to the end of the Round of 8.

OK, is that it?

No, NASCAR has made those bonus points more valuable. Follow me. Say a driver finishes with six wins in the regular season. They would earn 30 playoff bonus points (five wins for each win). Now, say, they won seven segments in the regular season, they would have seven bonus points (one playoff point for each segment win). And, let’s say they finished as the regular-season champ, earning 15 bonus points. That means they would have 52 bonus points (30 from wins plus seven from segments and 15 for regular-season crown).

The driver will continue to receive those bonus points in each round of the playoffs as long as he/she remained eligible for the title — plus any additional victory or segment points earned in that round.

Anything else I should be aware of?

Yes, NASCAR is now using the word “playoffs” to describe its run to the championship instead of Chase. As Dale Earnhardt Jr. joked: “I think that for all the folks that have been asking us to get rid of the Chase for years, this is a great day for them.’’

Are these changes for the Cup Series only?

No, they are for the Cup, Xfnity and Camping World Truck Series.

What were some things the drivers said about all of this?

Denny Hamlin: There are no off weeks. Every single race matters. Not only that, but every lap of every race matters. From our standpoint, you always felt a little bit relaxed once you got a race win, and you would sometimes maybe go into test mode or something. Now with each accomplishment that you have during each given race, whether you’re collecting points for the overall regular season or you’re trying to collect points through a stage win or a race win, each accomplishment gives your road to Homestead a little bit easier, gives you a little bit of cushion there to be able to get through the playoffs and make it to Homestead, and that’s what it’s all about for us is making it to Homestead and trying to race for a championship.’’

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “I love the fact that the bonus points or the playoff points will carry through the playoffs all the way to the last round. So everything you do throughout the season is really going to help you throughout the playoffs. That’s a great change.

Brad Keselowski: “Wait until you see it on the racetrack.When you see this on the racetrack, this is going to be the best racing you’ve ever seen.’’

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How will new in-race stages and points format be impacted by weather? (video)

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NASCAR can only control so much — but try as it may, weather is one thing it can’t.

How will the new enhancements to the points format be impacted if Mother Nature decides to open the skies and wreak her wet havoc upon races and racetracks?

NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell addressed that issue during Monday’s announcement of the enhanced points format.

NASCAR: From now on, it will be ‘the playoffs,’ not ‘the Chase’ (video)

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What’s in a name? For NASCAR going forward, it will no longer refer to its playoffs as “the Chase.” From now on, it will be simply “the playoffs.”

With the name change, the format for the playoffs will not change — with the exception of the enhancements to the points format that was announced Monday. 

NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell said that it was time for the sport to move on from the unique “Chase” monicker, which spawned several similar formats and accompanying names in other sports, including drag racing and golf.