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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).

Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates have concerns about Kyle Larson racing sprint cars, Indy 500

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Last September, not long after he won his first NASCAR Cup Series race, Kyle Larson was asked on the NASCAR on NBC podcast if he’d talked with owner Chip Ganassi about competing in the Indianapolis 500.

“He always told me to worry about winning your first Cup race ,” Larson said. “I would love to run the Indy 500 at least once.”

As of Sunday, Larson has two Cup wins driving the No. 42 for Chip Ganassi Racing.

But according to his team owners, they would prefer that he stay away from extracurricular racing outside stock cars.

Minority co-owner Felix Sabates said if Larson raised the subject of the Indy 500 this year, the answer likely would be negative.

“No, I don’t think so,” Sabates said Monday night on “The Late Shift” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It’s a different kind of racing all together. Kyle would probably be one of the few guys, like Tony Stewart, because he ran (an) open-wheel car for a long time, he could adapt to it.

“But no need for him to go take a risk of hurting himself just for one race. It just doesn’t work.”

One of Larson’s other hobbies is returning to his roots and competing in sprint car races whenever he can. CGR reportedly allows him to compete in 25 sprint races a year (with the next coming Wednesday at Placerville Speedway). But Ganassi said to USA Today Sports he’d be more comfortable if Larson no longer indulged in that form of racing.

“Let’s just say this: I do get concerned when he wants to do that,” Ganassi told reporter Brant James. “I would say I’d be much happier if he said he wanted to go play golf. But also, at the same time, I don’t want to slow him down. If he thinks that makes him better, OK, great. If he thinks that’s slowing him down, I would think he would stop it. But for now, he thinks it makes him better.”

Stewart participated in “The Double” of competing in the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 twice in his career, in 1999 and 2001. In the second attempt, Stewart competed for Ganassi at Indy and finished sixth.

Since 1994, only four drivers — Stewart, John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Kurt Busch — successfully have attempted “The Double.”

When Gordon attempted it for the first of five times in 1997, he competed in both races for Sabates’ SABCO Racing.

But at the time, Gordon wasn’t competing full time in either the Indy Racing League or NASCAR. He started 20 of 32 Cup races that season.

Larson is currently on top of the Cup point standings following his win at Auto Club Speedway. He assumed the points lead for the first time in his career after three consecutive runner-up finishes following his near-win in the Daytona 500.

The 24-year-old driver is in his fourth full-time Cup season with Ganassi. But Larson was teasing a possible attempt at “The Double” as early as December 2015.

Last May, Larson visited Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Ganassi on the first day of practice for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Still winless in NASCAR at the time, Larson allowed himself an even bigger window when it came to prerequisites for entering the race.

“It would be incredible to start the 500 someday in the future … but it’s more up to the guy on my left (Ganassi),” Larson said. “Maybe after I win a Cup race, or two or three … or maybe a championship … I can run the Indy 500.”

With or without Larson, this year’s Indy 500 will be run on May 28. Larson can be seen in his full-time ride later in the day in the Coca-Cola 600.

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Tony Stewart set for May 19 sprint car race at Kokomo Speedway

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Tony Stewart is set to compete in just one 410-cubic inch sprint car race in his home state of Indiana this year.

The three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion announced Tuesday he will drive in the May 19 Arctic Cat All-Star Circuit of Champions event at Kokomo Speedway. The track is located about 65 miles north of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The event, Stewart’s first at the track with the series he owns, is the only winged sprint car race that is held at the 1/4-mile clay oval.

The Columbus, Indiana, native has competed on the track previously in World of Outlaws, midgets and non-winged sprint cars.

Earlier this year, Stewart backed out of a Feb. 11 All-Star event at Bubba Racepark in Ocala, Florida. In a statement, Tony Stewart Racing said Stewart backed out because “requirements of owning and managing the series supersede his own driving ambitions.”

“I’m really looking forward to being part of a great night in Kokomo,” Stewart said in a press release. “Racing on Friday night is a tradition in Indiana. When I was growing up, we spent the weekends chasing races at dirt-track races FridaySaturday and Sunday. And for the event to be in May, it just makes it that much more special. I raced there a few years ago with the World of Outlaws and the races were some of the best they had all season. The Arctic Cat All-Stars have a talented group of guys racing with them and I’m sure it’s going to be a great show. Hopefully, we can be part of something special and give all the Indiana fans something to be really proud of.”

Stewart has not released a schedule of the roughly 80 races he will compete in this year. He is set to race at the Texas Motor Speedway’s dirt track April 7-8.

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Upon Further Review: Dramatic finishes common occurrence at Auto Club Speedway

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After late-race passes for the win in each of the first four races this year, and six if you go back to last season, can it get any better for the NASCAR Cup Series?

Yes. Auto Club Speedway is next.

This is home to NASCAR’s buzzer-beaters in this time of March Madness.

While the last six Cup races have seen the final pass for the lead take place in the last eight laps — Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500 with a last-lap pass — Auto Club Speedway has been the home of even more thrilling finishes.

The last four races at the 2-mile track in Southern California have seen the winning pass made in the final two laps. Go back a little further, and it is five of the last six races. Restarts, pit strategy, multiple lanes and good old-fashioned horsepower have combined to give fans some of the most exciting finishes in recent years. 

Consider all the late-race excitement:

In 2016, Kyle Busch caused a caution with a blown tire that sent him into the wall and the race into overtime. Kevin Harvick led. Jimmie Johnson, his car adorned in the Superman paint scheme, passed Harvick in Turn 3 on the way to the white flag and pulled away for the win.

In 2015, a debris caution sent the race to its second overtime attempt with Kurt Busch leading. Brad Keselowski restarted sixth with four fresh tires and was second to begin the final lap. Keselowski charged by Busch to win.

In 2014, Kurt Busch led on the overtime restart and was challenged by teammate Tony Stewart. As Busch and Stewart raced side-by-side for the lead to begin the final lap, Kyle Busch closed. Stewart took the lead off Turn 2, and Kyle Busch soon motored past him and held off Kyle Larson to win.

In 2013, Kyle Busch emerged the winner after Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin dueled for the win on the last lap and made contact, sending Hamlin’s car into an inside concrete wall. Hamlin would miss four races after suffering an L1 compression fracture. 

The string of late-race passes for the win at Auto Club Speedway was broken in 2012 when Tony Stewart led the final 22 laps.

Auto Club Speedway doesn’t have a monopoly on such finishes. In the last 148 Cup races (dating back to the start of the 2013 season), 37.1 percent saw the final lead change take place within the final 10 laps. Yet, of the 12 races since 2013 that were determined on the final lap, three of those (25 percent) were at Auto Club Speedway, most of any track.

Johnson has scored more victories taking the lead within the final 10 laps than any other driver since 2013. Eight of his 20 wins (40 percent) during that span came after he took the lead within the final 10 laps. 

Logano and Keselowski are next.

Seven of Logano’s 15 wins (46.7 percent) since 2013 came after taking the lead in the final 10 laps.

Seven of Keselowski’s 13 wins (53.8 percent) since 2013 came after taking the lead in the final 10 laps.

While all of this is no guarantee of what Sunday will be like, if this weekend’s finish can match what has taken place there in recent years, it should be quite an ending.

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Another runner-up finish doesn’t have Kyle Larson down

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It’s not getting old yet for Kyle Larson.

After his third consecutive runner-up finish Sunday at Phoenix Raceway — and fourth in the last five NASCAR Cup races — Larson could still smile.

“Like I’ve been saying all this early year, we’ve never had this speed; it’s a lot of fun right now,’’ Larson said after placing second to Ryan Newman in the Camping World 500, a week after finishing second at Las Vegas to Martin Truex Jr. and two weeks after placing second to Brad Keselowski.

“I’m sure if I ran second the next eight weeks it is probably going to grow old,” Larson continues. “It’s so cool to be one of the fastest cars every week. I feel like I’ve got a shot to win every week. At a race track like here and Vegas, where I don’t normally run good and challenge for wins, and Daytona, I suck on superspeedways, it’s been a lot of fun to start this year.

“I hope we can continue to work hard, be consistent and be mistake-free on pit road and on the race track. If we can just keep doing that, the wins are going to come. I could easily have four wins right now. Just got to keep working hard.’’

What he does have, though, is the points lead for the first time in his Cup career. Larson has 184 points. Brad Keselowski is next at 178.

Larson had a chance to win on the final restart. He restarted fourth, the first car with two fresh tires. Newman, who led, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and Martin Truex Jr., each did not pit and restarted in the top three spots.

Larson tried to move down from the top lane in Turn 1 after the restart to get by Newman, but Larson came down on Stenhouse’s car.

“I knew we were in the best spot,’’ Larson said. “I turned across Ricky’s nose and killed both of our runs off of (Turn) 2 and allowed Newman to get out on us.’’

That left Larson to settle for second and become the first driver since Carl Edwards to finish second in three consecutive races. Edwards did it in Nov. 2011 during his championship battle with Tony Stewart.

It is such moments, he admits, that have kept Larson from winning this year.

“I guess little mistakes or inexperience or whatever you want to call it,’’ Larson said. “Hindsight is always 20/20. I should have went a lane up in (Turns) one and two. I should have known to just stay close to Newman. That’s what I wish I would have done.

“But, yeah, it’s weird running all these seconds. It took me, like, three years to finish second in sprint cars. Now I finish second like every week, so…  A little weird, but maybe we’ll turn them into wins soon.’’

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