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 wasn’t deemed 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?

Virginia’s Motor Mile Speedway to end short track racing, drops NASCAR sanction

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Motor Mile Speedway has decided to not renew its NASCAR sanction for 2018, ending its reign as a circle track.

The .416-mile paved oval track in Fairlawn, Virginia, will undergo a significant transformation starting next year which does not include short track racing. A NASCAR Home Track, it has hosted the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series for a number of years and hosted a number of then-Busch Series races nearly 30 years ago.

While it may return to host some select racing events in the future, track officials in a news release announced it will soon host “a variety of entertainment and sporting events.”

“We have tried to make the speedway successful, but with a downturn in interest, it’s increasingly difficult to make it work,” Speedway co-owner David Hagan said in a media release. “We are looking at a variety of events to bring new life and excitement to the property.

“The schedule could include everything from concerts, mud runs, festivals, camping, and even new racing events at some point.  You name it and it’s probably come up at our table.”

Located about an hour southwest of Roanoke, Virginia, the speedway sits on a 170-acre parcel of land. While the speedway will cease holding races, it’s adjacent drag strip will continue to operate for sportsman racing.

Click here for the full media release from the speedway.

NASCAR issues three lug nut penalties in final penalty report of season

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NASCAR has issued three penalties to crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts following the championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jason Ratcliff, crew chief on the No. 20 Toyota driven by Matt Kenseth, has been fined $20,000 and suspended one Cup points race for two unsecured lug nuts.

Ratcliff will be moving to the Xfinity Series to serve as Christopher Bell’s crew chief next season. The suspension is series specific. So he will be available to crew chief Bell in the season-opening race at Daytona.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief on Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 Ford, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

In the Camping World Truck Series, Phil Gould, crew chief on Ryan Truex‘s No. 16 Toyota, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

Watch: Denver-area fans celebrate Martin Truex Jr.’s championship

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Barney Visser’s Furniture Row Racing is the only Cup team headquartered west of the Mississippi River, claiming Denver, Colorado, as its home.

Since the team began competing in NASCAR in 2005, the team has built up a dedicated fanbase in the city.

Those fans were rewarded when Martin Truex Jr. won Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 and claimed the team’s first Cup championship.

One watch party in the area took place the Quaker Steak & Lube in Westminster, just north of Denver.

A fan has shared video of the moment Truex captured the championship.

Above, you can watch the Furniture Row Racing fans in attendance celebrate during the final lap of the race.

NASCAR America: Elliott Sadler shouldn’t blame Ryan Preece for losing Xfinity title

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It was arguably one of the most difficult pills Elliott Sadler has ever had to swallow.

Just when it appeared he might finally capture his first career NASCAR championship in Saturday’s Xfinity Series title race, Sadler found himself held up by Ryan Preece, who was racing for the car owner’s title for Joe Gibbs Racing but was not involved in the race for the driver championship.

Preece was running the high line and kept Sadler from getting by him. Sadler tried everything he could to pass Preece, even putting his bumper into the back of Preece’s Toyota to get him to move over.

But that contact ultimately wound up costing Sadler one last chance to catch William Byron, who went on to win the Xfinity championship in his first year in the series.

Sadler, meanwhile, finished second for the second consecutive year — and the fourth time in the last seven seasons.

On Monday’s NASCAR America, analysts Dale Jarrett and Parker Kligerman broke down what happened to Sadler and whether Preece played a part in preventing Sadler from winning the title.

Here’s how Jarrett looked at it:

“I understand the frustration from Elliott Sadler with a driver that really’s not involved in anything. Ryan Preece is an outstanding young driver that made a name for himself. … I think they gave him bad information and put this young man in a very difficult situation. He wasn’t going to catch the 22 car at that point in time. It was really time for him to get out of the way of the two drivers battling for the championship.

“Unfortunately, his name is going to be associated with affecting the championship in this way. It’s part of it, he doesn’t have to pull out of the way, it’s up to Elliott to figure out a way to get around him.”

And here’s how Kligerman analyzed things:

“I completely understand Elliott Sadler’s frustrations. He had a chance to win the championship, he was in the front and felt like not being able to accomplish that pass on Ryan Preece and maybe get a little help there.

“But it’s not like Ryan stuck it out there, he was beside him and it just didn’t work out. And as they got together, I felt Ryan was running the same line he had been running, and that was Elliott trying to make a last-ditch effort.

“… He’s racing to have a job, to have a career in this sport, like Elliott Sadler. He told me after the race he was upset because he was an Elliott Sadler fan his whole life. He grew up watching Elliott Sadler. He did not want to be part of the championship discussion but was trying to do his job, doing what Joe Gibbs Racing told him to do, which was to try to beat the 22 for the owner’s title.

“I know why Elliott is upset, it’s the fourth time he’s finished second, but I don’t think Ryan did anything wrong.”

Catch more of what Parker and DJ had to say in the video above.

And speaking of William Byron, check out what our two analysts had to say about his championship in the video below.