Martin Truex Jr.

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?

Ford teams continue to struggle for answers to speed, aero woes

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With eight wins in the first 19 Cup races this season – including three in the last six – you’d think Ford would be at the top of its game.

But such is not the case. While Toyota’s Martin Truex Jr. and Chevrolet’s Kyle Larson have been at or near the front often in recent races, Fords have dropped off in performance.

The two premier Ford teams, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing, have both struggled for more speed and to overcome aerodynamic issues.

“Aero is definitely an area we’re struggling,” Dave Pericak, Director, Ford Performance, said Thursday at Eldora Speedway. “We’re definitely not struggling from an engine perspective and many other areas, but yeah, aero, for sure, and we’re working on it.”

Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski, has watched his driver slip from third in the Cup standings to eighth in the last eight races. During that stretch, Keselowski has finished 30th or worse (crashes) four times, and had just two top fives.

“We’re not in the best spot we’d like to be in,” Wolfe admitted Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Seems like the last couple months have definitely been a challenge and a little bit of a struggle for all of us at Team Penske, not just the No. 2 car.

“We’re really just trying to find out what to do to get some speed back in our cars. It seems like where we get the cars driving and the drivers are somewhat happy with what we call a raceable balance, we’re just off on speed at that point. We can get the cars to run a fast lap time, but the drivers say they’re just not drivable and can’t race that way. It’s been a challenge trying to get both right now, and for whatever reason, we seem to be off.”

MORE: Brad Keselowski says ‘poorly designed car’ makes it difficult ‘to put on a show’

Time is not a luxury Wolfe or anyone else at Team Penske has. Seven races remain until the playoffs.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Wolfe said. “There’s not too many races here until Chicago comes around, so we’re trying to figure it out, that’s for sure.”

Wolfe’s Team Penske counterpart, Todd Gordon, faces an even greater sense of urgency with the No. 22 of Joey Logano. Even though Logano won at Richmond earlier this season, the victory doesn’t count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after the race.

As a result, Logano is not locked into the playoffs and is in a seemingly must-win situation to secure a playoff berth. Things have gone from bad to worse of late: since his encumbered win at Richmond, Logano has finished between 21st and 37th seven times, with just one top-five and one other top-10 (plus a 12th-place finish) in the other three events.

Logano has fallen from fifth to 13th in the NASCAR Cup standings.

Wolfe can empathize with the plight of Logano and Gordon.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us, but this sport over the years, there’s peaks and valleys,” Wolfe said. “We’re been on the good side and bad side before.

“We’re going to have confidence everyone at Team Penske and Ford will continue to work in the right direction and hopefully get our speed where we need it to contend for a championship later this year.”

A tale of two seasons in just 19 races

Fords enjoyed early season success, winning the season’s first two races at Daytona (Kurt Busch) and Atlanta (Keselowski).

Ford also won at Martinsville, Richmond and Talladega – and earned three more wins in the last six races, but those came on a road course (Sonoma), a restrictor-plate track (Daytona) and a triangle that is seemingly part superspeedway and part road course (Pocono).

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has two wins (Talladega and Daytona), as does Keselowski (Atlanta and Martinsville), while Kurt Busch (Daytona 500), Joey Logano (Richmond), Ryan Blaney (Pocono) and Harvick (Sonoma) all have one win each.

But check out some of the other recent Ford stats:

* At Michigan, in its corporate backyard, Ford had one car in the top five and led just two of the 200 laps.

* At Kentucky, Ford had no cars in the top five and led just seven laps.

* At New Hampshire last weekend, Ford had one car in the top five and led zero laps.

How did things fall off so quickly for Ford when it came to downforce and lack of speed? Wolfe has a theory.

“As the season went on, NASCAR started changing enforcement of some templates and some aero things, and for whatever reason, it seems like it affected the Fords maybe more than Toyota,” Wolfe said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Obviously, Toyota came out with a new car, they were slow getting going, but they definitely have it figured out and seem to have a little bit of an advantage right now.

“I feel like some of the rule changes on the aero side has really affected our cars a lot and trying to get them balanced out, back to where they were before some of those changes has been difficult for us.”

When Wolfe thinks he is starting to get a handle on things, other questions arise he told “The Morning Drive.”

“Is it more of a mechanical area that we’re missing with this package because of the aero shift?” Wolfe said. “Or the amount of downforce it is, is there something we’re missing mechanically with the platform of how we control our splitter or ride heights?

“Or is it just the fact those guys just have more downforce than us? Those are all the question marks and we don’t really have the answers right now. Maybe we can get out of our comfort zone and mindset of what has had success in the past and explore new things. We’ll continue to do that and pay attention to teams that are having success.”

Stewart-Haas Racing also has woes

Wolfe’s counterpart at Stewart-Haas Racing, Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, admitted to “Tradin’ Paint” on Thursday that his team is pretty much in the same boat as Team Penske.

“I hate to even say it but I agree with (Wolfe),” Childers said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “On one side of me, I feel that we’re in trouble. I don’t know if we will get caught up to where we need to be.

“I feel l like it’s time that Ford is going to have to push hard and come up with a new body and do something to get us back in the ballgame from the downforce side of things.”

Childers would like to see NASCAR get more involved in the disparity he believes has developed between Ford, Toyota and Chevrolet.

“I think it’s time for NASCAR to take all the cars to the wind tunnel again and figure out where we’re all at,” Childers said. “If there are people that are way off, other teams, then we need to figure out how to make it more equal. You hate to get into that again.”

Even so, Childers remains confident in his team, given that Harvick is the highest-ranked Ford driver (fourth) in the Cup standings.

“The downforce stuff, we’re not way off,” he said. “I feel like we’ve kind of had the best Ford week after week here lately. We’re pushing hard and we’re not going to give up by any means and I think everybody will see that in our performance.

“But on the other hand I do feel like it has hurt us a little bit more and we just have to figure out how to dig through it.”

Ups and downs are cyclical

Childers also mentioned the irony that it wasn’t all that long ago that SHR and Harvick were being looked upon as the kings of performance (albeit in Chevrolets), much like Truex and Larson are today.

“I look back at the 2014 and 2015 seasons and everybody used to complain about us being the fastest car every week, leading all those laps and always have a shot at winning,” Childers said. “Looking back, I don’t even know if we understood then exactly what we were doing to be that much faster than everybody else.

“I think it’s the same way with (Truex and Larson) right now. They’ve done a good job, have their cars where they need them to be, their drivers are doing excellent jobs, the pit crews are doing a good job.”

But there’s still the bottom line.

“We have to get faster race cars,” Childers said. “Our pit crews have done excellent, Kevin’s done excellent, we just have to be faster when we unload off the haulers. Hopefully, we can get caught up a little bit.”

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NASCAR America: Cup series experiencing significant parity of late (video)

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The 2017 NASCAR Cup season has been an interesting study to date.

Not only have there been three first-time winners – Ryan Blaney, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon – the last eight races in particular have marked a period of incredible parity and diversity in the series.

There have been eight different winners in the stretch of races from the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte to this past Sunday’s Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

During Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, analysts Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman discussed their thoughts on what has made the last eight races so competitive – yet disparate when it comes to the end results.

First, let’s hear from Petty:

“There’s no dominant driver. We haven’t seen a Jimmie Johnson, a Jeff Gordon, a Matt Kenseth winning six or seven races a few years ago, just dominating everywhere you go.

“We’ve not had that this year. We’ve had a few guys who’ve run upfront, have won a few races and won a lot of stages – the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.), we can say that – but at the end of a day, not a dominant driver.

“No. 2, the different style racetracks we’ve had. We’ve had a 600-mile race (Charlotte), a banked mile race (Dover), a triangle (Pocono), a 2-mile track (Michigan), a road course (Sonoma) and a speedway (Daytona). When you throw that many different tracks at teams, some teams are going to perform better than others.

“The other part of it for me is penalties, mistakes and stage racing. Stage racing has changed how some of these guys approach the day. We saw that this past weekend at New Hampshire. Kyle Busch gave up points in that first stage to win the second stage.

“We also see penalties and mistakes by pit crews and drivers and penalties on pit road have taken drivers out of winning one or two races.

“I think this is a great part of the season for teams. When you look back over these races and see maybe not the guys that won races, but those that led races and run in the top four or five, they’re the guys that are going to be the four guys (challenging for the Cup championship) at Homestead.”

Kligerman essentially agreed with Petty but with one exception – while Petty put the advent of stage racing last on his list of the three major differences this season, Kligerman put stage racing at the top of his list.

Here’s what Kligerman said:

“Stage racing and the strategy that has shown up, you have drivers solely who care about winning the stage so they get that playoff point because they’re locked into the playoffs and want to pad their points for the playoffs. You have other drivers that are trying to point themselves into the playoffs, they care about every stage point possible. That has really mixed things up.

“Young drivers within these different organizations. They’re going out there and competing and showing they have different skills, that they brought to organizations that maybe weren’t the best. Young drivers are bringing up those organizations up to the front at those types of tracks.

“Schedule diversity, the vast amount of tracks, that’s where we both agree. That diversity of the schedule has certainly added up.”

Petty summed it all up by adding, “We are in a stage where there’s a transition from the older and established drivers to these younger drivers, and they’re going to have an impact on the sport.

“With these eight organizations winning these last eight races, that’s an impact already. … We are in that transition, we’re seeing it and these are the initial results of it.”

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Kevin ‘Bono’ Manion team to make NASCAR K&N Pro Series debut in Iowa

Photo courtesy Kyle Busch Motorsports
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Kevin Manion Motorsports, owned by former Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 winning crew chief Kevin Manion, will soon make its debut in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series.

The part-time racing organization will compete in its first K&N Pro Series event on July 28 at Iowa Speedway, the annual race that brings together racers and teams from both the K&N Pro Series East and West Series.

“I’m happy to finally join the ranks of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series,” Manion said in a media release. “It’s a tremendous series, and our goal is to build something beyond a one-off race. We want to create an environment that teaches and develops young talent who have goals of competing at racing’s highest levels.”

The team is based in Mooresville, North Carolina. Bono is a veteran NASCAR crew chief who has worked for several teams and drivers during his career including Ricky Craven, Tommy Baldwin Racing, Steve Park, Martin Truex Jr., Richard Petty Motorsports and currently with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

KMM’s No. 1 Menards-sponsored Toyota Camry will be driven by NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Ben Kennedy.

The great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Jr., and grandson of Bill France Jr., Kennedy is a two-time race winner in the K&N Pro Series East, scoring victories at Five Flags Speedway and Bowman Gray Stadium in 2013.

Since forming over nine years ago, KMM has recorded nine wins and 10 poles in NASCAR’s Whelen Modified divisions and various regional Modified series.

Among drivers that have driven for KMM over the years include Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece. The team has scored wins at several tracks, including New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway.

 

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Even in victory, frustration prevailed for some with Joe Gibbs Racing at New Hampshire (VIDEO)

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For as much as Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated Denny Hamlin scoring the organization’s first Cup win of the season and Daniel Suarez tying his career high with a sixth-place finish Sunday at New Hampshire, there was much to lament.

Matt Kenseth saw his chances to win end with a questionable pit call late. Kyle Busch’s hopes of victory faded when he was caught speeding twice in the final 65 laps.

Without the missteps from Busch and Kenseth’s team, Hamlin likely doesn’t win.

That’s the type of season it has been for Busch, who has found numerous ways to lose Cup races, allowing five drivers to score their first win of the season.

Consider Busch’s season of frustration:

  • He pits from the lead during a late caution at Phoenix. Ryan Newman stays out and leads the final six laps — the only laps he leads — to win. Busch finishes third.
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. passes Busch on the final lap of overtime to win at Talladega. Busch finishes third.
  • Austin Dillon gambles on fuel to win the Coca-Cola 600. Busch finishes second and follows it with his mic drop in the media center.
  • Ryan Blaney passes Busch with 10 laps to go to win at Pocono. Busch, on older tires, falls back to ninth.
  • Busch starts on the front row for the final restart at Kentucky. He has two fresh left-side tires, while Martin Truex Jr., the leader, did not pit. Truex wins. Busch finishes fifth after starting on the pole
  • Busch leads 95 laps at New Hampshire but two late speeding penalties on pit road end his chances to win. He finishes 12th.

“This is another one I threw away for us,’’ Busch said on the radio to his team after the race Sunday.

Crew chief Adam Stevens replied: “We win as a team and lose as a team.’’

Busch is winless in his last 35 Cup races heading into this weekend’s event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — site of his last Cup win.

There’s no doubt his car is fast enough to win. He’s led at least 95 laps in seven races since his Indy triumph a year ago but has yet to return to victory lane.

While Kenseth hasn’t had as many close calls, he can relate to miscues hurting him. He finished third at Atlanta despite two speeding penalties. He placed fourth at Bristol despite a speeding penalty.

Then came the pit call that cost Kenseth the win at New Hampshire and extended his winless drought to 36 races, a full season. When the caution came out on Lap 263, most of the lead field pitted. Kenseth led. Ratcliff called for a two-tire change. That got Kenseth off pit road first but the rest of the cars behind him took four tires. 

Kenseth restarted alongside Dale Earnhardt Jr., who did not pit. Kenseth took the lead after the restart but could not hold off Hamlin, who quickly passed with his four fresh tires. Kenseth never had a chance at the lead the rest of the 301-lap race and finished fourth.

“I let you down,’’ Ratcliff said on the radio after the race. “We should have won.’’

The Gibbs teams are getting closer to winning. Just as Hamlin forecasted in April at Richmond.

“I think we are slowly getting better, we’re gaining more knowledge trying to figure out what it is that we need to work on,’’ Hamlin said at the time. “I think we’ve identified some areas where we need to work. It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen this week, it won’t happen in a month. Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better.’’

Hamlin notes that even with his win at New Hampshire, more work remains.

“I think we’re there except for two cars,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports on Sunday. “(Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson) are the only ones that continually beat us on speed. As far as the rest of the field, I feel we’re there on speed. Our teammate (Busch) has been like the third-fastest car and we’ve been the fourth consistently just about every week. We’re there where we need to be, but I still feel like for speed-wise, we need more to catch those two.’’

As the Gibbs cars contend for more wins, the difference will come down to execution and not making mistakes.

“There’s a lot of things we can do to be better,’’ Hamlin said. “We have a championship-caliber team. We just have to get our cars a little bit faster. I’m running laps out there as good as I feel that I can do. My car is doing everything that I need it to do but (Truex) is just faster.

“He’s running me down, and he’s passing and putting a straightaway on me. I’m thinking (crew chief Mike Wheeler) there’s nothing else I can give you. I don’t want to screw up our car and finish sixth. Just leave it where it is and hope those guys make mistakes.’’

Sunday, it was his teammates who made the mistakes and Hamlin took advantage.

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