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’s cycling craze grows but not every driver ready to wear spandex

Photo: Jimmie Johnson
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Clint Bowyer laughs at the latest craze in the NASCAR Cup garage.

Cycling.

“It’s just a fad,’’ Bowyer told NBC Sports. “It’s just like anything else, I mean, it really is. It’s so funny.

“I go to the shop and I see all these bikes hanging on the bike rack and we’re talking three, four, five thousand dollar bikes sitting there that you know damn well, they’re not going to be riding for long. Nobody enjoys that. So it’s a fad.

“It’s going to go away, and that’s when you’ll be able to pick up a good deal on a really nice bike and go through the fad yourself. But there’s no way in hell I would ever let anyone see me in that spandex.’’

That’s what Dale Earnhardt Jr. thought. He hitched a ride in a vehicle through the Atlanta Motor Speedway infield earlier this season before getting on his bike outside the track so no one would see him in spandex.

Now, Earnhardt enjoys cycling, promotes it and doesn’t mind being seen in spandex.

“I didn’t like working out at a gym, running on a treadmill, all that stuff’s real boring,’’ Earnhardt told NBC Sports. “Couldn’t really find anything that I liked to do. And so I picked up cycling. It’s a lot of fun.

“We go out and ride at all the stops on the NASCAR circuit, and we see part of the country that we … never take the time to see. It’s really beautiful. And it doesn’t feel like working out. It doesn’t feel like an exercise. We’re just cruising along on our bikes.

“We’ll ride for an hour-and-a-half or two hours, it goes by pretty quick. There’s never any moment in the experience where I’m going, ‘Man, how much longer do we got?’ And you’ll ride 20 to 30 miles, get off the bike, you’ll burn 800-1000 calories in a two-hour period, and you’ve had fun. And you feel great!’’

Earnhardt is among many drivers in the Cup garage cycling. They include Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne.

Road cycling has evolved in the sport. Drivers and crew members previously went mountain biking to get their exercise.

“We used to meet on Tuesday afternoons all the time and ride and you got to meet a lot of new people, and then it kind of expanded (from) there to riding road bikes,’’ Kenseth said of he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff.

“It’s a good way to get out of the motorhome on the weekends and see a lot of the different areas around the race track that I never really explored before and keeps you in great shape.’’

While they’re not on the level of Tour de France riders (NBCSN’s coverage continues at 6 a.m. Wednesday with Stage 17), it’s still about being in shape in the car. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 90s this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The high for Sunday’s race (3 p.m., NBC) is expected to be 89 degrees, making it among the warmest temperatures for a race this season.

Cycling, along with the rest of his workouts, helps Johnson with handling such conditions and more.

“I’ve learned a lot of great things from a nutrition and hydration standpoint to take to the car, and some probably know I’m pretty sensitive to hydration,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports. “I’ve had some issues over the years, and I’m thankful that I have this knowledge because I think I would have many more episodes, but truthfully there is so much more from a mental aspect. Learning to fight for something, the discipline it takes to stay fit at a high level.

“It’s a very stressful job and to get on the bike and be with my friends and socialize and stay fit has been good on a lot of levels. Not just the obvious physical ones.’’

Some drivers have taken their bike riding further. Johnson, Kenseth and McMurray rode in a 102.7-mile bike race in May from South Carolina to Mt. Mitchell, which at 6,684 feet is the highest point east of the Mississippi River, in Western North Carolina. McMurray finished in 5 hours, 58 minutes. Johnson rode with former Tour de France racer George Hincappie and both finished at 6:01. Kenseth completed the ride in 6:32.

Still, not everyone is sold on cycling, like Bowyer and Ryan Newman.

“I don’t quite get those guys and the amount of money they spend on whatever it is, a 32-ounce bicycle, when all they’ve got to do is just go on Craigslist and get a Schwinn or something like that and pedal half the distance and twice as hard and get better workouts,’’ Newman said.

“I offered back at Talladega weekend to get a Moped and cut the air for Kenseth and those guys just to kind of give them a little draft, some drafting partners, you know? But, they haven’t taken me up on it. So, I’ve just been enjoying fishing and a little bit of the outdoors. My workouts consist more of doing physical activities and sweating than paying money for a bicycle just to coast downhill.’’

Extra miles @monstermile with @jimmiejohnson @dalejr @chaseelliott24

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Matt Kenseth on driving No. 88 car: ‘I don’t feel like that’s going to be an opportunity’

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Matt Kenseth, who does not have a ride for 2018, said he doesn’t believe he’ll take over the No. 88 car Dale Earnhardt Jr. vacates after this season.

Rookie Erik Jones will take over Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 ride after this year. With Earnhardt making this his final full-time Cup season, it’s led some to wonder if Kenseth would move over to Hendrick Motorsports and drive that car. Car owner Rick Hendrick was coy about his plans for the No. 88 car last weekend at New Hampshire.

Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, was asked Monday night on “The Late Shift” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio if he’ll drive the No. 88 car next year:

“I just don’t know,” Kenseth told co-hosts Kenny Wallace and Brad Gillie. “I don’t feel like that’s going to be an opportunity I’m going to have. I really I don’t know. I really honestly don’t have anything lined up for sure. I will say that I’m not really that worried about it. I’m not really losing sleep over it. I’m not that concerned about next season.

“I’m glad that we got it all out, got it out in the open so that everybody knows what everybody is doing and we can just kind of get it behind us and go racing. It’s only July and there is a ton of racing left to do. Got a lot of things we still want to accomplish with the 20. It’s been a great four-and-a-half years, and I certainly want the last four or five months to be great as well.

“Really nothing to feel bad about. Just go work hard and race hard and try to win some races. I feel like that I’m in one of the best cars in the garage. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. I’ve got a great opportunity in front of me here these next few months to go out and win some races and hopefully go race for another championship.

“Everything is there that we need. It’s all there in right in front of us. Not every driver can say that they got the opportunity to be in those cars. I think to get distracted and think about and talk about and worry about next year, it would really be taking away from what we’re trying to do right now.”

Kenseth is coming off a fourth-place finish last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He holds the final playoff spot with seven races left until the playoffs begin. Kenseth, who has 38 career Cup victories, has gone 36 races without a win.

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NASCAR America: Breaking down the final restart at New Hampshire

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A hand full of teams took gambles in the final laps of Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire, but it was Denny Hamlin, on four tires and looking for his first win of the year, who prevailed.

On the final round of pit stops, Dale Earnhardt Jr. stayed out and Matt Kenseth only took right-side tires. Hamlin overpowered them on the final restart with 35 laps to go and went on to win the Overton’s 301.

NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty looked at the final restart to see what went right for Hamlin and what went wrong for Kenseth, Earnhardt and others.

“(For Earnahrdt), that was a Hail Mary,” Petty said. “When you throw a Hail Mary from 15th, you’re looking at 11th or 12th. You’re not looking at a win with a Hail Mary against these guys that were running there.”

On Kenseth, “Matt and (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff have won a race at New Hampshire with a two-tire change. I think they believed … ‘The (PJ1 traction agent) is gone, it’s back to the old race track. Let’s go back to this.’ I think they underestimated the Goodyear tire, I think they underestimated how much (PJ1) was still there.”

Watch the video for the full segment.

Cup Playoff Grid: Denny Hamlin becomes 11th driver to qualify for Cup postseason

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
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After repeat winners at Daytona and Kentucky, Denny Hamlin became the latest driver to win his way into the Cup Series playoffs Sunday at New Hampshire.

Hamlin, with his first victory of the season, is the 11th driver to clinch a spot in the 16-car field for the playoffs.

He would be the 12th if not for Joey Logano‘s Richmond win being encumbered due to an inspection failure.

If the postseason began this weekend, the drivers getting into the 16-car field on points would be Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth.

With his win, Hamlin has seven playoff points. That puts him eighth on the playoff grid among those who have clenched a playoff spot. He is ahead of Kurt Busch (five playoff points), Ryan Newman (five) and Austin Dillon (five).

In the graphic below, drivers in green are in the playoffs on wins. Drivers in yellow would be in on points and drivers in orange would not make the playoffs.

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