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Kevin Harvick: Kyle Larson is the best driver to enter NASCAR since Jeff Gordon in 1993

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Kevin Harvick made his debut as a SiriusXM Satellite Radio host Tuesday night and made some news by announcing Stewart-Haas Racing was withdrawing its Phoenix appeal.

But those weren’t the most interesting comments made by the 2014 champion, who had a strong opinion on the most recent winner in NASCAR’s premier series.

Kyle Larson is the best driver to come into this sport since Jeff Gordon, in my opinion,” Harvick said. “I think Kyle Larson is that good.”

How good is that?

Well, let’s peruse a partial list of drivers (and their credentials) who have entered NASCAR’s premier series since Gordon’s arrival in 1993 and Larson’s in 2014:

Jimmie Johnson: Seven championships, tied for the most in NASCAR history. Also led the points and scored three wins as a rookie. He is the only driver who has qualified for the playoffs in all 13 seasons.

–Tony Stewart: The three-time series champion became the first Cup rookie to win in 12 years (and notched three victories in his first season). The 1997 IndyCar champion is regarded by many as his generation’s greatest.

Matt Kenseth: The 2000 rookie of the year won the 2003 championship and has failed to qualify for the playoffs only once in his career.

Denny Hamlin: The 2006 rookie of the year has made the championship round twice and has won in 11 consecutive seasons in Cup.

Kyle Busch: The 2015 Cup champion has won in 12 straight seasons in Cup and has 171 victories across NASCAR’s top three national series.

Kurt Busch: The 2004 series champion has 29 wins on the premier circuit, finished sixth in the 2014 Indianapolis 500 and also qualified for a Pro Stock event in the NHRA.

Brad Keselowski: The 2012 series champion has 21 victories with Team Penske since 2011 and has emerged as NASCAR’s top restrictor-plate racer.

Joey Logano: Two-time championship round contender and is tied with Johnson for most victories (14) since the 2014 season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: A two-time Daytona 500 winner missed the last half of the 2016 season but was a title contender in 2014 and ’15.

–Harvick: His performance since aligning with crew chief Rodney Childers at SHR three years ago has been astounding: the 2014 championship, 12 victories and more than 5,700 laps led on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

So given all of those names … what would be the purpose of Harvick’s effusively praising the Chip Ganassi Racing driver?

“He’s just a kid that not enough people know about, but he’s won and wins in everything that he’s ever driven,” Harvick said. “He’s just a racer. … I think he’s laser focused on what he does as a race car driver, and I think he’s the best talent to come through this sport in a long, long time and is going to win a ton of races because he’s that good.”

Hey, wait a minute. When is the 24-year-old’s contract up?

Chip Ganassi notoriously is secretive about the lengths of his drivers’ deals (in IndyCar and NASCAR, particularly because it wants to avoid having its stars poached by other teams). It’s believed that Larson re-signed toward the end of 2015, but it’s unclear how long his deal runs.

That’s why the last part of Harvick’s riff on Larson could have been telling.

“I hope Ganassi has a good contract with him because every team in the garage wants a Kyle Larson. He’s a guy that you can put in your race cars and win races even on a day when they’re not the best race cars. He’s going to make them look good.”

By the way, it also is worth noting that Ganassi was miffed four years ago when Stewart and Gordon had high praise for Larson. The team owner hinted he thought both drivers had motives of courting Larson to join their teams (Gordon openly has spoken about meeting Larson in his Hendrick Motorsports office years ago and pitching him on the organization).

Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott are kings of NASCAR Cup stages

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With five NASCAR Cup races in the book in the 2017 season and in the stage racing era, one thing is for certain.

While race wins are still the most important thing, stage wins and finishing a stage in the top 10 are having a significant impact upon the driver standings.

Starting this season, NASCAR broke the races into segments of varying length (depending on the race and track). Just as in a full race, the most important thing for a driver is to finish as high as possible in each of the first two stages to maximize points.

A stage winner earns 10 points and one playoff point. The second- through 10th-place finishers in a stage earn, in descending order, nine points down to one point (which count toward the regular season).

Sunday’s race winner Kyle Larson is atop the NASCAR Cup point standings and also has amassed a series-high 70 stage points through the first five races.

Those 70 points make up nearly a third of the 243 total points Larson has earned this year.

Chase Elliott is second with 63 stage points. Heading into Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway, Elliott has 214 overall points, so his stage points also account for nearly a third of his total.

“I think we’re realizing how important it is to continue to stack up those points throughout the day,” Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler told NBC Sports. “Like Brad (Keselowski) did this weekend, he finished second, but we still lost points to everybody we’re around (because he didn’t do as well in the first two stages).

“The 78 (Martin Truex Jr.), the 24 (Elliott) and especially the 42 (Larson), they all were at the front of the stages, and they ended up putting up a bunch of points between you. That’s a tough situation, but it’s the reality of it, and I think we’re all realizing that you have to be good all day long.

“You can’t just finish well. That’s a change of mindset (from years past).”

Geisler pointed to Joey Logano’s run two weeks ago at Phoenix, where the driver of the No. 22 started from the pole and earned 10 points for winning Stage 1.

Logano wrecked late in the race and finished 31st in the 39-car field, but his stage win helped him salvage some of the day with 16 total points.

“(Logano) won a stage, we got points, we got a catastrophic ending to the day, but it wasn’t as bad as what you would normally have,” Geisler said.

Going back to Larson, if he had not earned any stage points, he likely would be ranked fifth in the standings heading into Martinsville. It would be even worse for Elliott. Without stage points, he likely would be in seventh place in the overall Cup standings.

Rounding out the top 10 in stage points earned are Brad Keselowski (58 points), Truex (53), Kevin Harvick (40), Joey Logano (38), Kyle Busch (36), Jamie McMurray (35), Ryan Blaney (31) and Ryan Newman (19).

But their rankings in the overall Cup standings is slightly different: While Larson (243 points) and Elliott (214) are 1-2, Truex is third (205 points), followed by Keselowski (179), Logano (174), McMurray (162), Blaney (157), Clint Bowyer (143), Harvick (137) and Kyle Busch (136).

Then there’s the total flip side, namely, Kurt Busch.

This year’s Daytona 500 winner has earned just eight stage points.

That’s a major reason why Busch is ranked 16th in the stage points standings and 14th in the NASCAR Cup standings (125 points) – the lowest of any race winner thus far this season.

“I think that’s becoming more clear to us as the races go on that the stage points mean more than anybody gave credit to just because of the way the math adds up,” Geisler said.

“If you knock out 20 points right there in the first two stages, it’s a huge difference if you can get just a base hit for the end of the race. If you finish in the top 10, it’s a great day at that point.”

Top 10 stage points earned in 2017:

  1. Kyle Larson (70)
  2. Chase Elliott (63)
  3. Brad Keselowski (58)
  4. Martin Truex Jr. (53)
  5. Kevin Harvick (40)
  6. Joey Logano (38)
  7. Kyle Busch (36)
  8. Jamie McMurray (35)
  9. Ryan Blaney (31)
  10. Ryan Newman (19)
  11. Jimmie Johnson (18)
  12. Erik Jones (16)
  13. Clint Bowyer (14)
  14. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12)
  15. Denny Hamlin (11)
  16. Kurt Busch (8)
  17. Danica Patrick (7)
  18. Austin Dillon (5)
  19. A.J. Allmendinger (5)
  20. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (4)
  21. Matt Kenseth (2)
  22. Trevor Bayne (1)

Dustin Long contributed to this story.

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Atlanta Motor Speedway to delay repave at least a year

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The cries of drivers have been heard. Atlanta Motor Speedway will not repave its track as previously scheduled. Instead, track officials will evaluate the surface following the 2018 race there.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns the track, had planned to have the track surface repaved beginning in late March. It would have been the first repave there since 1997.

Engineers examined the track after the March 5 race to determine if the track surface could last another year with modest repairs. Track officials also consulted with Goodyear and others.

“There’s no question that the surface is worn out, but probably the most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C., was the biggest influence,” Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports of the drivers. “They kind of put the pressure on. I understand.”

After winning there, Brad Keselowski made his pitch not to repave the track.

“Drivers hate repaves,” he said. “We want to see the surfaces last as long as they can.  But the reality is nothing lasts forever, and this surface has made it a really, really long time, 20 years, I think, this season, and they should be really proud of that.

“My hope is they can get another year or two out of it, and I understand if they can’t, and you have to kind of leave it to their expertise and so forth.”

Clark said that work will need to be done to the track before next year’s race.

“The worst part is down the frontstretch in front of the grandstands,” Clark told NBC Sports. “There’s a lot of issues there. We’re actually going to have to cut a few areas and patch … to make it last through 2018. We consulted with Goodyear on that. They don’t think, as long as it is on the straightaway, it is a big issue from a tire standpoint.”

Clark said the track surface will be sealed in October and should have the patching done before then.

“Let them go ahead and slip and slide one more time in 2018,” Clark said.

Clark said that while anything can change, he doesn’t foresee being talked out of a repave job too many more times.

“You have to see how the weekend goes and what happens,” Clark told NBC Sports. “We had to patch some places after the Saturday events this year, small places. Hey, if we could go two more, great. All you’ve got to do is walk out there and look at it. It is absolutely worn out. But if the drivers say, hey our choice is to race on this surface as it is.

“There comes a point (when a repave is needed). We do have a few drainage issues we do need to correct, some other things when the time comes. Right now, we’re going to get through 2018 and evaluate and see if that is the time or when is it.”

Clark said that when the track is repaved, Goodyear has expressed interest in having two test sessions to determine the proper tire for that 1.5-mile track instead of the customary one because of the track’s challenging surface.

Clark warns that with the excitement of Tuesday’s news, the day is still coming when the track will have to be repaved.

“I can’t see this going two more seasons, maybe only one,” Clark said.

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Brad Keselowski takes ‘torn to pieces’ car and finishes second in Auto Club 400

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Brad Keselowski was the only driver in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 who played in the grass and dirt and it wasn’t willingly.

In any other instance, this story likely has a disappointing ending.

However, when Keselowski climbed out of his N0. 2 Ford at race’s end to survey his mangled left-rear fender, he was doing so after finishing ahead of 37 other drivers in a 39-car field. The only driver ahead of him was Kyle Larson

Keselowski earned his fourth top five of the season after he went sliding through the front stretch grass on Lap 4 of the 202-lap race. The slide was a result of contact with Jimmie Johnson after Keselowski fell from third to 17th place in the first three laps. His drop came after the inside lane bottlenecked at the start, causing Ryan Newman to run into Keselowski’s rear bumper.

“I wanted to win but I got out of the car and looked at the damage and this thing is torn to pieces,” Keselowski told Fox Sports. “I feel lucky to get second. Curious to see what we could’ve done if we weren’t torn up.”

The perseverance of Team Penske’s No. 2 team occurred without its leader, crew chief Paul Wolfe. Wolfe was serving the first of a three-race suspension after the No. 2 failed post-race inspection at Phoenix last week.

Keselowski and his damaged ride earned his second top five in three years at the 2-mile track. He never finished better than 18th in his first six starts at the track built by team owner Roger Penske.

“Glad I got the race on record on the DVR so I can see it,” Keselowski said later in a press conference. “We really turned a corner here.  The first few races I ran here, we were awful.  I think I learned a lot, the team learned a lot. Have put together just a much more robust effort for this type of track. I like coming to places we run well.  But beyond that, I think this track is known for having great races and great racing.  I thought we saw that here at the end today.  It’s fun to be a part of those races.”

Keselowski had an average running spot of 15.5. The No. 2 was one of the first cars a lap down at the end of the first stage, but was 10th at the end of the second stage on Lap 120. At the end of the afternoon, he had spent 117 laps in the top 15.

On the overtime restart, Keselowski found himself in third, exactly where he began the race.

“I don’t know if I would have had a shot at Kyle, but I’d like to have seen,” Keselowksi said of Larson. “We came from third on that last one, a couple of three‑wide passes and whatnot, because Kyle was smart. He picked the outside lane, kind of pinned me behind a guy that had older tires.

“By the time I cleared everybody, Kyle was just too far gone.”

Meanwhile, the other drivers damaged on the race’s initial start also bounced back, albeit with cars that were covered in duct tape. Newman finished 15th while Kevin Harvick finished 13th. Both were on the lead lap.

Keselowski ends his “West Coast Swing” second in the points behind Larson. He’s been in the top three for four of the first five races.

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What drivers said after the Auto Club 400

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Kyle Larson stayed in control during an overtime restart to win Sunday’s Auto Club 400 for his second Cup Series win.

Here’s what Larson and the rest of the field had to say after the fifth race of the season.

KYLE LARSON – winner: “I was staying as calm as I could be but also (was) frustrated at the same time.  It seems like every time I get to the lead at the end of one of these things, the caution comes out, and I’ve got to fight people off on restarts.  Our Target Chevy was amazing all day.  We were able to lead a lot of laps today.  (Martin) Truex was better than us that second stage by quite a bit.  We were able to get the jump on him the following restart and led pretty much the rest of the distance.  I had to fight them off there after the green-flag stops, and that was a lot of fun. … This is just amazing.  We have been so good all year long, three seconds in a row.  I’ve been watching all the TV like, ‘He doesn’t know how to win,’ but we knew how to win today, so that was good.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished second: “Just great perseverance by the No. 2 team here with the Wurth Ford Fusion. I wanted to win, but I got out of the car and looked at the damage, and this thing is torn to pieces. I feel lucky to get second. Curious to see what we could’ve done if we weren’t torn up. But great day for us to really persevere. You’re just going to have that in a 36-race season.”

Clint Bowyer – Third: “It was a good weekend for us.  We never showed the speed in practice, but I wasn’t worried about it because I knew the car was really comfortable on the long run and things like that.  I was proud of the effort that Buga and all the guys give me each and every week.  I’m proud to have Rush Truck Centers on our car this weekend.  It’s just a great sponsor and a fun guy.  I’m just having fun again.  That’s what it’s about.”

Martin Truex Jr. – Fourth: “We were right there all day long. I felt like (Kyle Larson) had everybody covered. It was just a matter of who got out front and got clean air. Toward the end, we had a little trouble in the pits. We didn’t take tires, everybody else did, and we were at a big disadvantage those last couple restarts. Definitely happy to come out of here with a fourth with the tires we had on the car at the end. It was a good day, and we have fast cars, and we’ll continue to work on them.”

Joey Logano – Fifth: “It was up and down for sure.  Our car was really good on the short runs just like yesterday. Our car was good on the short runs and not good on the long runs. We would lose too much time. We tried to short-pit them and got caught with the caution and got stuck down a lap with 20 to go or so.  We were able to recover, and at one point, I thought we were going to win the race and had some trouble on pit road and lost some spots again, but we were able to make some of them back up and end up with a top five out of it with the Auto Club Fusion. It was up and down to say the least for the whole weekend for me.”

Jamie McMurray – Sixth: “Our team and our whole organization has done an amazing job to get to the point that we are. It’s not one thing; it’s hundreds of small things. I’m so happy for all the guys at our shop that have worked hard. In our sport, every team works hard; and you’re not always rewarded for it. It’s awesome to be rewarded for all the work.”

Daniel Suarez – Seventh: “I think the result is very good. That’s exactly what we are here for, but we have to keep working the race in general. I feel like we were not great – we were just OK – and then in the last couple of rounds in the last couple adjustments, the car was much, much better. I wish it was like that the whole race, and if it was going to be like, we were going to be running in the top 10 like we finished the entire race. We have to keep working. I know that there is room to improve it still, but for now we’ll take the top 10.”

Ryan Blaney – Ninth: “I thought we were not great at the beginning, kind of faded at the end of the first stage.  I thought at the beginning of the first stage, we were really good.  We drove up there. In the early part, we seemed to fade late in runs. In the middle part, we had equipment leave the pit box, and that put us in a big hole back there, but we did a good job fighting back, putting ourselves in a decent position to have a good finish and a decent shot at (the win). Most restarts worked in our favor except the last one. We just got put three wide there and kind of got hurt. Overall not a bad day for us coming back from that pit-road penalty. That was pretty good.”

Chase Elliott – 10th: “We were just trying to do something different. I thought (the unscheduled late pit stop) was going to give us the best chance of winning. (Crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) did as well. We had a good NAPA Chevy, and we were on the same page. He made the right call. And you can’t control when the caution comes out. So that’s just part of it.”

Austin Dillon – 11th: “I wish we could have done more with the position we were in with tires. On the outside lane, we cannot fire off the first couple of laps.  We struggle with that, and I’m going to start practicing it and figuring out why we can’t turn. I’m proud of my guys, but I guess we just wanted more.”

Erik Jones – 12th: “We were fast. We just don’t complete the races that well, so we have to go to work and get a little bit better and figure out how we ran all day.”

Kevin Harvick – 13th: “I feel like we won. Those are the days that championships are made out of right there. To wreck before we even get to the start-finish line, I don’t know exactly what happened in front of me, but, obviously, we got a caved-in grille. They did a great job fixing it. We got some wavearounds and made the car better and made something out of the day. That’s why these guys are who they are and won championships and races because they can make days like that happen.”

Denny Hamlin – 14th: “Race was pretty good. Our cars were a little bit slow overall. I mean, that’s the biggest thing now is that our car’s just slow. We’ve got to work on that and try to get our balance a little better and get out engines a little bit better, and we’ll be all right.”

Ryan Newman– 15th: “It was a tough and long day for us. We got a hole in the front nose on the first lap that cost us our track position. Then we battled an extremely tight-handling car that put us a lap down. We finally raced back onto the lead lap with 19 to go. It certainly wasn’t the finish we wanted, but it was a decent recovery.”

A.J. Allmendinger – 17th: “We definitely started off really loose which, kind of thought we might just go into the race just trying to get on the other side of it.  I was still a little bit tight trying to roll the center, which is kind of where we have been struggling a little bit, but made good adjustments and thought we got the car as good as we could have gotten it.  It was kind of right in that area.  I thought we maximized the speed of the car today and wish we would have had one less yellow.  I really thought I had made a good move and gotten clear of the next group behind me and thought maybe we would pick off a couple more.”

Ty Dillon – 18th: “My No. 13 Chevrolet team fought hard all day. We really struggled with the balance in the first two stages. I was tight through the center and loose on exit. Crew chief Bootie Barker worked with different adjustments to get us where we needed to be. Our Chevy SS was the best it had been all day there in that last segment. We made a strategy call and stretched our gas mileage to try and make it with only one green-flag stop to end the race while the leaders would need another, but late-race cautions kept that from working. We battled hard and, despite handling issues, it was a good end to the day.”

Aric Almirola – 19th: “We struggled. We just don’t have the overall grip and speed in our cars, but we’re working hard. Everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports has been working really hard.  It’s a big improvement from Atlanta.  We gained on it when we went to Vegas and then we’ve kind of gotten flat and stagnant and we haven’t been making as many gains and strides since Atlanta, so we still have some work to do.  I’m proud of the effort. We just have to dig deep.  We have to keep working hard and get speed in our car and more grip in our car so we can go and compete.”

Jimmie Johnson – 21st: “Man, we definitely didn’t have the fastest car out there today. I think we used up all the good luck in the season finale last season. We battled all day long to get back on the lead lap, but we have got some work to do.  I’m looking forward to spending the week with my girls and heading to Martinsville next weekend with this Lowe’s team.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – 22nd: ”It’s just unfortunate. Our Fastenal Ford started out tight early on in the runs but would come around later in the run, and we were able to pass some cars. Overall we had a solid day, and the pit crew did a great job on pit-road just unfortunate we didn’t get the finish we deserved.”

Trevor Bayne –  23rd: “I hate that that happened at the end of the race. We had a really fast AdvoCare Ford all race long and were able to really make some gains and passes out there. It’s just unfortunate that our day ended the way it did. We’ll recover from this and get after it next week in Martinsville.”

Chris Buescher – 25th: “It was a long afternoon in our No. 37 BUSH’s Beans Chevy. We got a decent starting spot but got shuffled back early and struggled to gain spots back. Then on the last restart, everyone got fanned out from another car getting in the wall, and we just lost all momentum. Next week, we’ve got a completely different setup as we go short-track racing, and I’m looking forward to racing with the short-track program at JTG Daugherty Racing.”

Matt Kenseth – 36th: “Yeah, I’m fine. I just didn’t do the best job getting through the gears, and I think (Jamie McMurray) got stuck outside of me, so I was trying to leave room for him on the top, and then I just got hit in the left-rear quarter panel off of Turn 2 and got spun out, and I was just kind of along for the ride.”f