Kyle Larson: ‘I feel like we’ve made it a round further already’ in playoffs this year

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — This postseason sees Kyle Larson in his second NASCAR Cup Series playoff appearance.

Not that Larson himself sees it that way.

“I don’t really feel like I was in the playoffs last year,” Larson said Wednesday during the playoff media day.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver made a quick exit last year when he was eliminated after the first round.

After qualifying for the playoffs via his first Cup win at Michigan, Larson finished 18th in the opener at Chicagoland after cutting a tire in the final 10 laps. He then placed 10th at New Hampshire before a battery issue early at Dover ended with Larson getting “kicked out the first round.”

But that doesn’t mean the fourth-year driver didn’t learn something from the experience.

“Even if you’re not in it, you still get an idea of what you need to do,” Larson said. “I mean, really you’ve got to make no mistakes. If you do have a mistake, you know you have to win the next race.”

Larson and his No. 42 team have done their fair share of winning this season, capped off by Saturday’s overtime win at Richmond Raceway. Somewhat overshadowed by rogue ambulances and caution controversy, the win was Larson’s fourth of the year.

It was also his first on a track shorter than 2 miles.

“I didn’t really think of it at the time, but it’s cool to finally win somewhere that’s not two miles,” Larson said. “Obviously, I’ve been really fast at a lot of different styles of racetracks. I’ve ran second, I feel like, at every racetrack. I mean, I’ve been close to win. It’s not like I’m only good at two-mile tracks.”

Larson has finished second seven times this year, including at the playoff tracks of Texas Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Phoenix Raceway and Dover International Speedway.

The Texas and New Hampshire results came after Larson had to start at or near the rear of the field. New Hampshire and Dover follow Chicagoland, a 1.5-mile oval, in the first round.

“Yeah, I could have a lot of mile-and-a-half wins,” Larson said. “I could have won the Daytona 500 this year. But it was nice to win at (Richmond), a track where I would put it down there with Martinsville as being my worst tracks. Richmond and Martinsville would be my worst tracks. For me to win at Richmond was a huge confidence booster.”

The confidence fueled by Larson’s four wins, his second seeding in the playoffs and his team’s generally faster cars than last year has Larson feeling “more relaxed” entering the postseason.

“This year I feel like we should hopefully make it through the first round,” Larson said. “I feel like we’ve made it a round further already this year. I don’t want to jinx myself, but I just feel more confident this year. I think I should be with four wins rather than one at this point last year.

“But anything can happen. I mean, we could win these next 10 or we could be off also. I could have one bad race, then not win the next two, be out in the first round.

“We’ve just got to do everything right.”

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Kyle Larson wins Stage 1 at Miami, Brad Keselowski leads Championship 4 drivers

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Kyle Larson won Stage 1 of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, dominating by leading 67 of the stage’s 80 laps, holding a nine-second edge when he took the checkered flag.

Meanwhile, here’s how the four Championship 4 drivers finished after the first 80 laps of the scheduled 267-lap event: Brad Keselowski is second, Kyle Busch is third, Kevin Harvick is fourth and Martin Truex Jr. in fifth.

Truex, with six of his seven wins this season coming on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead-Miami, wasted little time to take the lead away from pole-sitter Denny Hamlin.

The first caution of the race came out on Lap 6 when Joey Gase appeared to blow a tire and hit the Turn 1 wall hard.

During the subsequent pit stop, the only Championship 4 driver to hit pit road for four new tires was Keselowski, putting him off-sequence of the other contenders.

The move worked, though, as Keselowski quickly climbed from ninth on the restart on Lap 9 to third by Lap 12 and second by Lap 14.

Larson, who also pitted with Keselowski, took the lead away from Truex on Lap 13 and held on for the remaining 67 laps of the stage.

On Lap 38, Jimmie Johnson blew a right rear tire and came to pit road for four new tires. Even though there was no caution, all four championship contenders pitted over the following two laps.

On Lap 58, Harvick passed Truex and into third place for the first time in the race, zeroing on Keselowski in second.

Johnson got into the wall again on Lap 60, even though there was no caution, and sustained moderate damage, pitting for four tires and fuel.

Kyle Busch passed Harvick to take over third on Lap 77.

Sixth through 10th were Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer.

Watch: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fans on what the driver means to them

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The fan base of Dale Earnhardt Jr. is large and devoted.

Those fans, affectionately called “Junior Nation,” has voted Earnhardt as NASCAR’s most popular driver 14 years in a row.

Justin Hartley of NBC’s “This is Us” is a member of Earnhardt’s fan base. The actor narrates the above essay on the close relationship between the driver and his fans.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks to Bob Costas about his career, legacy before final Cup start

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Sunday marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s last start as a full-time Cup driver in NASCAR.

NBC Sports’ Bob Costas sat down with the 14-time most popular driver before the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to get Earnhardt’s thoughts before he climbed in the No. 88 Chevrolet for the last time.

Earnhardt addressed what he hopes his legacy will be after 20 years in the sport as a driver, including his impact on attitudes towards concussions in sports in general.

Earnhardt, who will join NBC Sports in 2018, also talked about what life has in store for him in the near future.

Earnhardt also made sure to credit his devoted fan base for making his career possible.

“I understand the driving force behind my success and opportunity in this sport, whether it be inside the car or outside the car, is all because of Jr. Nation,” Earnhardt said. “This year we’ve tried our best to show appreciation to them.”

Watch the above video for the full interview.

 

Furniture Row Racing going for Cup title after year of success, tragedy

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It’s been a historic year for Furniture Row Racing, the Cup team that has its base of operations in an old water bed factory in Denver, Colorado.

With Martin Truex Jr. piloting the No. 78 Toyota, they won a team record seven races and a series record six races on 1.5-mile tracks. Combined with a dominating performance under the new stage racing format, Truex has put the team in its second Championship 4 in three years.

But it’s also been a season of perseverance and tragedy.

NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan narrates the above video essay on the story of Furniture Row Racing’s 2017 season.