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?

NASCAR America: What happens to Brad Keselowski now that 88 ride has been filled? (video)

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Amid all the news about Alex Bowman replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Team Hendrick Chevrolet next season, one thing was kind of overlooked.

Rumors had floated throughout the sport the last several weeks about Brad Keselowski being a possible candidate to replace Earnhardt, as well.

Those rumors were only bolstered more by the fact Keselowski has still not signed a contract extension with Team Penske. His current deal runs out at the end of the current Cup season.

NASCAR Talk’s Nate Ryan appeared on Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America and talked about the various ramifications of the Bowman deal. But Ryan also suggested that with Bowman now in place, will that potentially hasten Keselowski’s re-signing with Team Penske perhaps sooner than later now that the 88 ride is off the table?

“Whether Brad Keselowski was seriously weighing a move to the 88 or whether he was using it as leverage to get a better deal from Team Penske and Ford, this just makes it all the more likely that he will re-sign with Team Penske and stay in the No. 2 Ford next year,” Ryan said.

“It’s very likely that we will hear soon that Brad Keselowski is re-signing with Team Penske. That deal is very close.”

Ryan also discussed whether another driver whose name was mentioned as a potential replacement for Earnhardt, young William Byron, may also score a promotion to the Cup Series with Team Hendrick.

“I think Cup could still be in the cards for next year,” Ryan said of Byron. “Kasey Kahne is under contract in the No. 5 for Hendrick Motorsports for 2018, but he is having a very disappointing season.

“If Hendrick elected to make a change on that ride, it could depend on sponsorship. That ride doesn’t have much sponsorship announced yet for 2018 and William Byron could certainly be an option there.

“He brings some sponsorship from Liberty University, and he also has been sponsored in a few races with Axalta and they really like what he’s done. If he goes to Cup, they really want to be on his car.”

Greg Ives: No. 88 team has head start on working with Alex Bowman

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Crew chief Greg Ives will have a new driver to work with full-time next year after two and half years with Dale Earnhardt Jr. helming the No. 88 Chevrolet

Luckily, it will be one of the drivers who replaced Earnhardt during the final 18 races of 2016.

Appearing Thursday on “Tradin’ Paint” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, Ives discussed Bowman’s appointment to the No. 88 next year. Ives said the 10 races he and Bowman worked together jump-started their relationship together.

During that stint, Bowman earned three top-10 finishes and a pole at Phoenix. The pole led to them being paired again in the Advance Auto Parts Clash in February, where Bowman finished third.

“Everybody’s really excited to have Alex in the car,” Ives said. “It’s one of those things, that precursor last year really helped out a lot. Alex had some different roads and different trials as he came up throughout his career. He took advantage of that opportunity, which wasn’t easy, to go from where he was in 2016 and then all of a sudden one morning get a call saying he was driving the 88 for Dale as a replacement driver. That had to be very taxing mentally, blowing him away a little bit. And he went out there and he performed and he did a great job. From that standpoint people were impressed, especially these guys that are working on the race car.”

MORE: JR Nation reactions to Alex Bowman succeeding Earnhardt

Ives said the Bowman news made the No. 88 shop at Hendrick Motorsports “genuinely happy” and “surprised maybe” that it came this early in the season, with 17 races left in the campaign.

“You saw a lot of smiles from the fact they genuinely care about what Alex has done for us and also feel like they’re giving back to him a little bit and know he’s going to do a great job,” Ives said.

Next season will be Bowman’s first full-time season in any NASCAR series since 2015 when he drove for Tommy Baldwin Racing in the Cup Series. In two full-time Cup seasons, Bowman’s best finish in the standings was 33rd in 2015.

MORE: Jeff Gordon approves of Alex Bowman driving the No. 88.

He was released from TBR in the lead up to the start of the 2016 season. In addition to his substitution role for Hendrick, Bowman’s time in the last year has been devoted driving the Chevrolet simulator and Chevrolet’s car at NASCAR-allowed tests.

Ives, who has three wins as a Cup crew chief and won the 2014 Xfinity title with Chase Elliott, said Bowman will continue in that support role this year as he prepares to take over the No. 88.

“It’s not going to be so unfamiliar when it comes to 2018,” Ives said. “You’ll probably see more of him around the shop and around the race track, but to be honest with you he has another job. He’s been doing a great job in the simulator and going to the wheel force tests for us. We gotta to keep him busy, keep him active over there, that way he keeps really learning for us.

“If we have him just sitting around the race track observing, that’s also not doing us any good.”

MORE: Nationwide, Axalta returning to the No. 88 in 2018

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Hendrick Motorsports faces challenge with multiple sponsor deals ending after 2018 season

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Plenty of time remains, but Hendrick Motorsports faces a pivotal year with several primary sponsorship deals ending after the 2018 season.

Thursday’s announcement that Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 next year after Dale Earnhardt Jr. steps away also included the nugget that Nationwide will extend its deal one year through the 2018 season.

That means that Hendrick Motorsports will have the following major primary sponsorships ending after next season: Lowe’s (Jimmie Johnson), Nationwide (Alex Bowman), Axalta (Bowman) and NAPA (Chase Elliott).

Those companies serve as a primary sponsor for a combined 94 points races next season:

Lowe’s will do 36 races, sharing some with vendors, on Johnson’s car.

NAPA will do 24 races on Elliott’s car.

Nationwide will do 19 races on Bowman’s car.

Axalta will increase its total by two to 15 on Bowman’s car next season.

And there’s more.

SunEnergy1’s deal of four races a year on Elliott’s car expires after the 2018 season.

Mountain Dew’s deal expires after the 2018 season and includes sponsorship of the cars of Earnhardt/Bowman, Kasey Kahne and Elliott, representing eight races total.

Rarely does an organization have so many significant sponsor deals end at the same time.

And there’s the fact that Hendrick Motorsports has yet to announce replacements on Kasey Kahne’s car with Farmer’s Bank Insurance not returning when its deal expires after this season, and Great Clips ending its agreement after this year. Those companies are scheduled to serve as the primary sponsor for 22 races this year.

Despite the challenges Hendrick Motorsports seems to be facing, it helps that the organization has done well in retaining sponsors — Axalta has been with the company since 1992 and Lowe’s since 2001 — but there are no guarantees. Lowe’s extension did not match the three-year extension Johnson signed. In 2015, both Johnson and Lowe’s signed two-year extensions. Before that deal, Johnson signed a five-year extension and Lowe’s signed a three-year deal, following with a two-year extension to later match Johnson’s contract length.

Nationwide and NAPA don’t have as long a history with Hendrick Motorsports as Axalta and Lowe’s.

Nationwide sponsored what is now the Xfinity Series from 2008-14 before becoming the primary sponsor of Earnhardt’s No. 88 car in 2015.

NAPA, which severed ties with Michael Waltrip Racing for its involvement in a team order scandal at Richmond in 2013, partnered with Elliott in 2014 when he was at JR Motorsports and followed him to Cup at Hendrick Motorsports.

With 16 months before the 2018 season ends, there’s plenty of time for Hendrick Motorsports to extend deals with each company or find others. Still, there is much work ahead. The pressure will be on to get those deals done in a timely manner.

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Jeff Gordon: Alex Bowman ‘proved himself last year’ when substituting for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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Jeff Gordon believes Alex Bowman more than “proved himself last year” when he substituted for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 10 races as Earnhardt recovered from a concussion.

Gordon, an equity owner Hendrick Motorsports and an analyst for Fox Sports, voiced his approval of the selection of Bowman to succeed Earnhardt in the No. 88 Chevrolet next season while appearing on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Gordon and Bowman combined to drive the final 18 races of 2016 while Earnhardt recovered.

“I was certainly somewhat involved in those discussion, but I think Alex proved himself last year when he got in the car,” Gordon said. “It was tough for me to jump in there and fill those shoes of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and all the hype and media around that. So for a young man like Alex to get in there and do the job and then all the work he’s done in the simulator, he’s paid his dues.”

MORE: JR Nation reacts to Alex Bowman taking over the No. 88.

In his 10 starts last year, Bowman earned three top 10s, including a career-best finish of sixth at Phoenix after he started from the pole and led 194 laps.

The pole earned him a spot in the Advance Auto Parts Clash in February, where he finished third.

“He’s worked hard, he and his family have sacrificed a lot to get to where he is today,” Gordon said. “If you look at his driving background, it’s impressive. I think what he did last year was amazing. Really the fans and the sponsors and Dale Jr. and the whole team, they’ve all spoken because of the job that he did and the way he handled himself in the car last year.

“I don’t think there’s any surprise that he’s getting this opportunity.”

MORE: Nationwide, Axalta returning to sponsor No. 88 with Alex Bowman

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