Ryan: A breakthrough or breaking rules? Kyle Larson’s star-making season is a NASCAR conundrum

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What happens when possibly the most talented driver in a racing series also is in danger of becoming viewed, however unfairly, as driving for the most tainted team?

This is the predicament currently facing Kyle Larson — and perhaps to an even larger degree, NASCAR and its most important narrative.

Alongside the breakaway playoff points push of Denver-based Furniture Row Racing and Martin Truex Jr. as championship favorites, Larson is among the best storylines the Cup Series has to offer this season.

He is delivering the circuit’s most thrilling drives, slicing through traffic with exquisite precision to finish second after starting from the rear of the past two races. He is laying claim to being the most versatile driver of his generation, equally excelling on asphalt and dirt across a broad spectrum of vehicles. He is finding his voice, calling peers to rebuild grass roots connections by running more short tracks, challenging the accepted norms of what makes stock-car racing great and shedding light on a merchandise business model that many say is broken.

But most importantly, he is validating the hype around being The Next Big Thing.

Desperate to hook a new breed of fans in the wake of a wave of retiring drivers (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr.), NASCAR needs its 20somethings to corroborate its promotional pushes with results – and none has been better than Larson.

But there is a weird dichotomy here, too.

The reason he has made compelling charges from the rear of the field is the same as why some might question the legitimacy of his blinding speed – incessant inspection woes with NASCAR that left Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet unable to qualify for three races this season and disqualified from the pole position at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

It’s created the problematic optics of celebrating Larson’s emergence as a superstar doing superhuman things while simultaneously noting that his team has emerged as Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of NASCAR’s officials for building cars that skirt the bounds of legality.

That’s prompted conversations between the team and NASCAR about the risk of being competitive at the expense of credibility and possibly sullying the good names of Larson, team owner Chip Ganassi or sponsors such as Target (which is in a contract year and reportedly is mulling whether to stay).

To his credit, the low-key Larson has seemed typically nonplussed when reacting to the charge of being scofflaws.

“I think with how fast we’ve been running and all that, NASCAR has kept a closer eye on our team in particular,” Larson said after his runner-up finish at New Hampshire, explaining that the team’s infraction there “wasn’t anything different really than the other teams tinker with, just trying to maximize their aero performance in their cars. Just got to keep working hard on the areas of our race car that are legal and find some more speed that way.

“It seems like we have a target on our back. But that’s a good thing, too. It means everybody is paying attention to us. This is my fourth year, and I’ve never been in the position to where NASCAR and other teams are paying so much attention to our race car. That’s a compliment to everybody at our race shop.”

Within the NASCAR garage, the prevailing sentiment seems to be awe and respect (juxtaposed with a swath of fan negativity and outrage on social media). Outlaw culture always will be the backbone of an endeavor rooted in moonshiners outrunning the authorities with souped-up jalopies decades ago.

On his SiriusXM radio show this week, Kevin Harvick heaped effusive praise on Larson’s team for doing “what you’re supposed to do” and said he wanted to pat No. 42 crew chief Chad Johnston on the back for the success.

During a Tuesday interview at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Earnhardt also hailed Larson’s team (“you have to admire the ingenuity and engineering that goes into finding that speed”) while emphasizing with its driver by suggesting Larson probably feels “slighted” and “ticked off” by those who say there “must be something going on with the car. There’s no way somebody is that much better.

“It’s not a lot of fun,” Earnhardt said this week. “You want to get credit as a driver for being fast and good. I don’t think anyone can disagree that Kyle’s very talented, very fast. But any time you go out and do something really good and hear people questioning, ‘Is there shenanigans going on?’ As a driver, that really ticks you off. Not giving credit where it’s due. The team and driver, in your mind, are why the car’s fast. Not because the car is rigged in some way.”

But Larson’s car had the field covered by a few 10ths of a second at New Hampshire in practice and qualifying.

Is he really this sublimely gifted? Or is it because his equipment is, as some in the NASCAR hierarchy have implied, “unique”?

“I don’t think there’s a driver in the field that is three 10ths better than everybody else, but there will be years in his career he is considered the best driver on the track,” Earnhardt said. “He’s really, really good. Kyle (Busch) is going to lay claim to that argument to being best on track. Jimmie (Johnson) also. But Larson is right up in that conversation, and you also got to look at the team he’s with, that team’s been struggling a while and played second fiddle to Gibbs and to Hendrick at times. And now they’re not.

“He’s been a huge part of their success. He raised the bar for that company and that team, and that’s amazing when a driver can do that … get in cars and take the team to the next level. Usually the drivers are responsible for that. Kyle Larson is that kind of driver. That’s incredible.”

Unfortunately, that fact often is being obscured in the swirl of laser inspection, points penalties and crew chief suspensions (Johnston will miss his second of three consecutive races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway).

NASCAR can try to force Larson’s team to stay within the bounds of the rulebook, but it sometimes becomes counterproductive when those rules restrict the conversation around celebrating a singular talent.

It’s important to maintain the integrity of competition.

It also is more important than ever to keep the focus on the new faces who will carry the torch for big-league stock-car racing well into the 21st century.

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In the category of teams under the NASCAR microscope, Joey Logano’s No. 22 Ford ranks with Larson’s for scrutiny. Though a rear-end suspension piece was confiscated by officials at New Hampshire under the auspices of safety, it was an uncommon step magnified by the penalty that rendered Logano’s victory at Richmond International Raceway as useless for playoff eligibility.

Logano and his team have maintained since then that its recent slump of two top 10s in 10 races didn’t result from being stripped of a critical setup advantage. That might be true in a literal sense – NASCAR officials privately have said the rear-suspension violation at Richmond deemed wasn’t a game-changing element – but there still could be lingering effects from being the first team to have a win’s impact so diminished

The key to finding speed often is getting highly engineered enhancements approved within a very limited window of rule maneuverability, and that depends on NASCAR cooperation. The underlying takeaway from Logano’s post-Richmond skid might be less about NASCAR scolding a team for what it did than hamstringing a team from what it’s allowed to do in the future.

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Filling the No. 88 Chevrolet this week ostensibly seemed to close off any path for Matt Kenseth to Hendrick Motorsports, but many still will be watching the performance of Kasey Kahne for the rest of the season.

Kahne has another season left on his contract, but he also is in danger of missing the playoffs for the third consecutive season. If Hendrick elected to go in another direction for the No. 5 Chevrolet, it could promote phenom William Byron, who has been tearing up the Xfinity Series lately and appears to have sponsorship. Another option would be bringing in Kenseth for a bridge season, giving Byron another year of experience on the junior circuit while providing a championship-caliber veteran an opportunity to diagnose

If Kenseth does continue racing in Cup, it likely will require a massive pay cut as market forces driven by a dearth of corporate sponsorship will make it difficult to command big money for veterans who have impressive resumes but lack significant contract leverage.

By replacing Earnhardt with Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports likely is reducing the driver salary line item in the No. 88 budget by at least 85 percent (if not more).

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The hiring by NASCAR this week of longtime Pocono Raceway president and CEO Brandon Igdalsky caught many off guard.

Igdalsky is well respected and liked, so it makes sense to put him as the sanctioning body’s track liaison as the managing director of event marketing and promotion.

But Igdalsky also hails from the family that has owned Pocono since its inception. Could his addition in Daytona Beach be a sign that NASCAR, which entered the track ownership business in 2013 with its purchase of Iowa Speedway, has plans in store for the 2.5-mile track?

Austin Dillon, Jeffrey Earnhardt in first wreck of Bristol night race

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The first big wreck of Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race occurred on Lap 232 of the scheduled 500-lap event.

It appeared Austin Dillon may have cut a tire and turned to his right, directly into the car of Jeffrey Earnhardt, sending both cars into the outside SAFER barrier and both sustaining heavy damage.

“We were running really good and all of a sudden the left-rear went flat,” Dillon said. “I don’t know what happened, if we had contact on that restart or our trackbar broke. My car chief said the letters on the Goodyear were rubbed off and about two laps later we broke.

“Our battery was going dead too, so it probably wasn’t going to be much longer we were going to be out of the race either way, but just a bummer. I really love this track and was having a blast tonight.  It sucks it had to end this way.”

Both cars were taken to the infield, with their nights likely over. That’s Bristol, baby.

Matt Kenseth wins Stage 2 at Bristol

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Matt Kenseth took the lead with about 10 laps left in Stage 2 when leader Kyle Busch pitted under caution. Kenseth went on to win the stage Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The second stage ended at Lap 250 of the 500-lap race.

It is Kenseth’s third stage win of the year. He entered the race holding the final playoff spot.

Jimmie Johnson finished second. Kevin Harvick placed third, Ryan Newman was fourth and pole-sitter Erik Jones finished the stage fifth. Jones was followed by Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Busch, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer.

Busch controlled most of Stage 2 and seemed set to win it until crew chief Adam Stevens elected to pit for tires to help set the team up for the rest of the race.

Busch fell from first to sixth on a pit stop after winning Stage 1 because of a problem with the left rear tire. He worked his way back to the lead on Lap 167, passing Jones for the top spot.

Jones took the lead back on Lap 179 as they raced in traffic around Brad Keselowski, who lost four laps because of a cut left front tire from contact in the opening laps.

Busch regained the lead on Lap 199. He maintained the advantage on pit road shortly after that when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit the wall and brought out the caution.

Martin Truex Jr. had a loose right rear wheel and pitted as the field took the green on the restart. He had to pit shortly after that when he was penalized for an outside tire violation. After serving the penalty, Truex was two laps behind the leaders.

AJ Allmendinger had to pit under green because he had a tire rub after contact.

Jeffrey Earnhardt and Austin Dillon crashed on Lap 232. Dillon spun up the track and Jeffrey Earnhardt had nowhere to go and slammed into Dillon’s car. Kasey Kahne hit the wall and Joey Gase‘s car as he tried to slow.

 

Kyle Busch passes Kyle Larson on final lap to win Stage 1 at Bristol

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Kyle Busch passed Kyle Larson on the final lap to win Stage 1 on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Busch and Larson dueled the final 11 laps of the stage. They made contact while racing in traffic while racing to Lap 125 of the scheduled 500-lap event.

Busch seeks to win the Camping World Truck, Xfinity and Cup races this week at Bristol for the second time in his career. He won all three races in 2010.

After Busch, who started 18th, was pole-sitter Erik Jones. Larson finished third. Chase Elliott was fourth. Matt Kenseth placed fifth. Kenseth was followed by Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.

The stage win is Busch’s 10th of the season. Only Truex (15 stage wins) has more this season.

A couple of drivers had problems early in the race.

Brad Keselowski suffered a cut left front tire on Lap 5 and lost four laps by the time he pitted and got new tires. He was 38th at the end of the stage.

Aric Almirola brought out the caution on Lap 61 when he hit the wall. He was 33rd at the end of the stage.

List of driver introduction songs for the Bristol night race

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Here’s all the songs NASCAR Cup drivers selected for their introduction prior to the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Erik Jones – “All I Do Is Win” by DJ Khaled

Kyle Larson – “Dirt Track Thing” by Kenny Montgomery

Kasey Kahne – “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” by Brooks & Dunn (picked by Dale Earnhardt Jr.)

Chase Elliott – “Chevy Don’t Let Me Down” by Jeff Bates

Matt Kenseth – “Halo on Fire” by Metallica

Martin Truex Jr. – “That’s How We Do Around Here” by Florida Georgia Line

Denny Hamlin – “Jumpman”  by Drake

Joey Logano – “Energy” by Drake

Clint Bowyer – “How Country Feels” by Randy Houser

Ryan Blaney – “Life Ain’t Fair & the World is Mean” by Sturgill Simpson

Jamie McMurray – “Believer” by Imagine Dragons

Daniel Suarez “El Mariachi Loco”

Ryan Newman – “Hutin’, Fishin’ & Lovin’ Everyday” by Luke Bryan

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – “Chattahoochee” – By Alan Jackson

Chris Buescher – “E” by Matt Mason

Austin Dillon – “Ain’t No Mercy” by Rick Ross

Brad Keselowski – “Right Now” by Van Halen

Kyle Busch – “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons

David Ragan – “I’m from the Country” by Tracey Byrd

Trevor Bayne – “Sideways” by KB Featuring Lecrae

Jimmie Johnson – “What’s My Name?” (clean version) by Snoop Dogg

Ty Dillon – “Rise Up” by Petey Pablo

AJ Allmendinger – “Paper Cut” by Linkin Park

Danica Patrick – “Regulate” by Warren G

Kurt Busch – “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith

Michael McDowell – “Dream Team (I Had a Dream)” by Thi’sl

Paul Menard – “512” by Lamb of God

Aric Almirola – “Green Light” by Pitbull

Kevin Harvick – “Happy” by Pharrell

J.J. Yeley – “I Got You Babe” by Sonny & Cher

DALE EARNHARDT JR. – “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy (Rock Remix) by Birdman and Lil Wayne (Picked by Kasey Kahne)

Cole Whitt – “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot

Landon Cassill – “Silver Bullet” by Hawthorne Heights

Matt DiBenedetto – “Gon Give It To Ya” by DMX

Corey LaJoie – “Lights Come On” by Jason Aldean

BJ McLeod – “Kickstart My Heart” by Mötley Crüe

Gray Gaulding – “Wanted Dead or Alive” by Bon Jovi

JEFFERY EARNHARDT – “Good Life” by Tyler Hatley & The Little Mountain Band

Reed Sorenson – “Over and Under It” by Five Finger Death Punch

Joey Gase – “I Gotta Feeling” by Black Eyed Peas

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