Could this finally be the weekend for Kyle Larson’s first Sprint Cup win?

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Is this finally the weekend for Kyle Larson?

So far, so good.

Larson is now in his third full-time season on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series yet still hasn’t won his first race.

But it would be a fitting scene and stage for Larson to do it at Sonoma Raceway, which hosts Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350.

Larson was fastest in the first of two Cup practice sessions Friday, combining with Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray to earn the first two fastest spots. Sonoma Raceway is Larson’s home track, as he grew up 80 miles away in Elk Grove, California.

“We have been close a couple of times this year now,” Larson said. “If I was able to get it in my home state here, close to home, that would be awesome.

“This is probably one of my best tracks too. I really enjoy road course racing, especially here with friends and family that will be here. Hopefully, we can stay out of trouble and qualify good. We normally qualify really well here. I think I had the track record here last year. I’m looking forward to it.”

Admittedly, Larson’s road course experience to date has been limited not just in Sprint Cup racing but across all types of racing platforms.

“I’m getting more experience, but still I probably ran a little over 10 road course races in my life,” Larson said. “But, I like them because you can feel the car kind of move around a lot more. You can feel the suspension, so it feels more similar to kind of a dirt track.”

Larson admits he’s starting to feel pressure that he has yet to win a Cup race. But at the same time, he’s made some gains this season.

“It’s kind of a process,” Larson said. “It took some time, a couple of months and now we are building racecars the way (crew chief Chad Johnston) wants them built, the bodies all that stuff.

“It has made our level or speed in the racecars get quicker. I think that has been the main thing is Chad’s influence has been key the last couple of months and we have been building the cars how he wants them. I think Chad and Phil (Surgen) my engineer, they have probably learned me now and the way I communicate and how big of an adjustment I need or small. I just think it takes a little bit of time to get working together right and now we seem to be clicking.”

The stats back up Larson’s claims: he has two top-five finishes in the last four races — second at Dover and third at Michigan two weeks ago. He also finished 13th at Charlotte and 11th at Pocono.

“We all want to win so bad,” Larson said. “We are all working hard to keep our cars fast and keep up with an ever-changing garage area.

“So, I guess the pressure is there to get the win while we are running well. You look at Chip Ganassi in the past, they are probably that team you describe where we get so close and then we lose it and have to spend a year or half a season regrouping and getting back to where we need to be.

“Right now we are closer to getting wins now. We have made huge gains so far this season. We just have to stay on top of it and hope we get a win.”

A win will likely be the best way for Larson to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, as he enters this weekend 21st in the rankings.

“Prior to our penalty, I thought it was, even if we didn’t win, and we could probably point our way in,” Larson said. “Obviously, it makes it tougher now with losing those 15 points.”

Team owner Chip Ganassi said later Friday afternoon that Larson knows what he has to do.

“I don’t think I put any pressure on him to win,” Ganassi said. “He knows what’s up. He knows he has to win. There is no need for me to remind him of that fact. He knows what it takes and what is expected of him. I don’t feel the need to remind him. He’s a smart guy.”

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Truck starting lineup at WWT Raceway: Ty Majeski wins pole

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Ty Majeski will lead the Craftsman Truck starting lineup to the green flag Saturday at World Wide Technology Raceway after winning the pole Friday night.

Majeski claimed his fourth career series pole and first of the season with a lap of 138.168 mph around the 1.25-mile speedway.

MORE: Truck starting lineup at WWT Raceway

Ben Rhodes, who won last week at Charlotte, qualified second with a lap of 137.771 mph. He was followed by Christian Eckes (137.716 mph), Carson Hocevar (137.057) and Stewart Friesen (137.007).

The series races at 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1.

Saturday Portland Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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There have been different winners in each of the last nine Xfinity Series races this season. Will the streak continue Saturday at Portland International Raceway?

Those nine different winners have been: Sammy Smith (Phoenix), Austin Hill (Atlanta), AJ Allmendinger (Circuit of the Americas), Chandler Smith (Richmond), John Hunter Nemechek (Martinsville), Jeb Burton (Talladega), Ryan Truex (Dover), Kyle Larson (Darlington) and Justin Allgaier (Charlotte).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Portland International Raceway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:38 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:46 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 10 a.m. … Practice begins at 11:30 a.m. … Qualifying begins at 12 p.m. … Driver introductions begin at 4:15 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Donnie Floyd of Motor Racing Outreach at 4:30 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed at 4:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 75 laps (147.75 miles) on the 1.97-mile road course.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying begins at 12 p.m. Saturday

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 4:30 p.m. ... Coverage begins at 4 p.m. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 4 p.m. and can be heard on mrn.com. … SiriusXN NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 73 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: AJ Allmendinger won last year’s inaugural Xfinity race at Portland by 2.8 seconds. Myatt Snider finished second. Austin Hill placed third.

NASCAR Friday schedule at WWT Raceway, Portland

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Craftsman Truck Series teams will be on track Friday at World Wide Technology Raceway to prepare for Saturday’s race. Cup teams will go through inspection before getting on track Saturday.

Xfinity Series teams will go through inspection Friday in preparation for their race Saturday at Portland International Raceway.

Here is Friday’s schedule:

World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Cup and Trucks)

Weather

Friday: Partly cloudy with a high in the low 90s.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 1 – 8 p.m. Craftsman Truck Series
  • 4 – 9 p.m. Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 6:30 p.m. — Truck practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. — Truck qualifying (FS1)

Portland International Raceway (Xfinity Series)

Weekend weather

Friday: Mostly sunny with a high of 77 degrees.

Friday, June 2

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 6-11 p.m. Xfinity Series (no track activity on Friday)

Friday 5: NASCAR’s $1 million question is can the culture change?

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NASCAR Cup teams have paid nearly $1 million in fines this season, more than triple what they paid last season for inspection-related infractions.

The money — $975,000 after just 14 of 36 points races — goes to the NASCAR Foundation. While the fines help a good cause, it is a troubling number, a point that a senior NASCAR official made clear this week.

Stewart-Haas Racing was the latest Cup team to be penalized. NASCAR issued a $250,000 fine, among other penalties, for a counterfeit part found on Chase Briscoe’s car following Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. The team cited a “quality control lapse” for a part that “never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack.”

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said this week that if violations continue, the sanctioning body will respond. NASCAR discovered the infraction with Briscoe’s car at the R&D Center. Series officials also discovered a violation with Austin Dillon’s car at the R&D Center after the Martinsville race in April.

“If we need to bring more cars (to the R&D Center), we’ll do that,” he said. “Our part of this as the sanctioning body is to keep a level playing field for all the competitors, and that’s what they expect us to do and that’s what we’ll continue to do. … Whatever we need to do, we will do that.”

Sawyer also noted that the “culture” of race teams needs to change with the Next Gen car.

“From a business model and to be equitable and sustainable going forward, this was the car that we needed,” Sawyer said. “To go with that, we needed a deterrent model that would support that.

“We’ve been very clear. We’ve been very consistent with this … and we will continue to do that. The culture that was in our garage and in the race team shops on the Gen-6 car was more of a manufacturing facility. The Next Gen car, that’s not the business model.

“The race teams, they’re doing a better job. We still have a lot of work to do, but they have to change that culture within the walls of the race shop.”

While NASCAR has made it clear that single-source vendor parts are not to be modified, teams will look for ways to find an advantage. With the competition tight — there have been 22 different winners in the first 50 races of the Next Gen car era — any advantage could be significant.

Twelve races remain, including Sunday’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway, before the playoffs begin. The pressure is building on teams.

“Some race teams, at this stage in the game, their performance is not where they would like for it to be and they’re going to be working hard,” Sawyer said. “If they feel like they need to step out of bounds and do things and just take the risk, then they may do that. That’s not uncommon. We’ve seen that over the years.

“The one thing that we have to keep in mind is we’ve raced the Next Gen car for a full season. We’re in year two, just say 18 months into it. So last year, they were just getting the parts and pieces, getting ready, getting cars prepared and getting to the racetrack.

“Now they’ve had them for a year. They’ve had them for an offseason. It’s given their engineers and the people back in the shop a lot more time to think, ‘Maybe we could do this, maybe we could do that.’

“By bringing these cars back (to the R&D Center) and taking them down to basically the nuts and bolts and a thorough inspection — and we will continue to do that — I believe we will get our message across. We’ll have to continue to do this for some period in time, but I have great faith that we will get there.”

A similar message was delivered by Sawyer to drivers this week when NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in retaliation for being forced into the wall.

Sawyer told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that “in the heat of the battle things happen, but (drivers) have to learn to react in a different way.”

Sawyer also noted that the message on how to race wasn’t just for those in Cup.

“We have to get that across not only to our veterans, guys that are superstars like Denny, like Bubba (Wallace) and like Chase and all our of national series Cup drivers, but also our young drivers that are coming up through the ranks that are racing in the Northeast in modifieds and in short tracks across the country,” he said. “That’s just not an acceptable behavior in how you would race your other competitors.

“There are a lot of things you can do to show your displeasure. That’s just not going to be one of them that we’re going to tolerate.”

2. Special ride 

Corey LaJoie gets to drive a Hendrick Motorsports car this weekend due to Chase Elliott’s one-race suspension.

“It’s a far cry difference from when I started my Cup career six years ago,” LaJoie said on his “Stacking Pennies” podcast this week. “There was a Twitter page “Did Corey crash?” … Going from that guy just trying to swim and stay above water and trying to learn the ropes to filling in for a champion like Chase Elliott for Hendrick Motorsports, it feels surreal.”

It was a little more than three years ago that LaJoie gave car owner Rick Hendrick a handwritten note to be considered to replace Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 car after the 2020 season.

“This was the first time I’ve gotten a letter from the heart,” Hendrick told NBC Sports in February 2020 of LaJoie’s letter. “I’ve gotten letters and phones calls, usually from agents. It was really a heartfelt letter and it was really personal.

“I was impressed with him before and am more impressed after.”

LaJoie admitted on his podcast this week that he wouldn’t have been ready to drive the No. 48 car then.

“I wouldn’t have been ready, whether it be in my maturation, my game, my knowledge of the race cars,” he said. “The person that I was wasn’t ready for the opportunity like that.”

Now he gets the chance. He enters this weekend 19th in the season standings, 38 points behind Alex Bowman for what would be the final playoff spot at this time.

“It’s an opportunity to hopefully show myself, as well as other people, what I’ve been thinking (of) my potential as a race car driver,” LaJoie said on his podcast. “But I also think you have to just settle in and be appreciative of the opportunity.”

3. Special phone call

With Corey LaJoie moving into Chase Elliott’s car for Sunday’s Cup race, LaJoie’s car needed a driver. Craftsman Truck Series driver Carson Hocevar will make his Cup debut in LaJoie’s No. 7 car for Spire Motorsports.

Once details were finalized this week, the 20-year-old Hocevar called his dad.

“I don’t know if he really believed it,” Hocevar said.

He told his dad: “Hey, this is actually happening.”

His father owns a coin and jewelry shop and is looking to close the store Sunday and have someone watch his two puppies so he can attend the race.

For Hocevar, it’s quite a turnaround for a driver who has been at the center of controversy at times.

Ryan Preece was critical of Hocevar’s racing late in the Charlotte Truck event in May 2022. Preece said to FS1: “All you kids watching right now wanting to get to this level, don’t do that. Race with respect. Don’t wreck the guy on the outside of you trying to win your first race. It doesn’t get you anywhere.”

NASCAR penalized Hocevar two laps for hooking Taylor Gray in the right rear during the Truck race at Martinsville in April.

Hocevar acknowledged he has had to change how he drives.

“Last year was really, really tough for me and that’s no excuse,” Hocevar said this week. “I just was mentally wrong on a lot of things, had the wrong mindset. I wanted to win so badly that I thought I could outwork stuff and it kind of turned some people away. … I wasn’t enjoying the time there. I was letting the results dictate that.

“I was taking results too personal. If we were going to be running seventh, I took it as I was a seventh-place driver and I wasn’t good enough. So I started making desperate moves. I did desperate things at times, even last year, that I’ve been able to calm down and look myself in the mirror and had a lot of heart-to-heart conversations.”

He called the Martinsville race “a turning point” for him and knew he needed to change how he drove. He enters this weekend’s Truck race with three consecutive top-five finishes.

4. Moving forward

In a way, Zane Smith can relate to what Carson Hocevar will experience this weekend. Smith, competing in the Truck Series, made his Cup debut last year at World Wide Technology Raceway. Smith filled in for RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher, who missed the race because of COVID-19 symptoms. Smith finished 17th.

“That one that I got for RFK Racing was a huge opportunity,” Smith said of helping him get some Cup rides this season. “I was super thankful for that. I think that run we had got my stock up and then, honestly, getting the Truck championship helped that rise as well.

“I think just time in the Cup car is so important, and I think once that new Cup car came out, people realized that you don’t have to do the route of Truck, Xfinity, Cup. The Cup car is so far apart from anything, though it does kind of race like a truck, so I don’t think you need to go that round of Truck, Xfinity, Cup. I think a lot of people would agree with me on that.

“I’m happy for these Cup starts that I’m getting. I’m happy for that one that I got last year at a place like Gateway. I think every time that you’re in one you learn a lot.”

Smith has made five Cup starts this season, finishing a career-best 10th in last week’s Coca-Cola 600 for Front Row Motorsports. The former Truck champion has two Truck series wins this year and is third in the season standings.

5. Notable numbers

A look at some of notable numbers heading into this weekend’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois:

5 — Most points wins in the Next Gen car (William Byron, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott)

7 — Different winners in the last seven points races: Christopher Bell (Bristol Dirt), Kyle Larson (Martinsville), Kyle Busch (Talladega), Martin Truex Jr. (Dover), Denny Hamlin (Kansas), William Byron (Darlington), Ryan Blaney (Coca-Cola 600).

17 — Points between first (Ross Chastain) and sixth (Christopher Bell) in the Cup standings

88 — Degrees at Kansas, the hottest temperature for a Cup race this season (the forecast for Sunday’s race calls for a high in the low 90s)

100 — Consecutive start for Austin Dillon this weekend

500 — Cup start for Brad Keselowski this weekend

687 — Laps led by William Byron, most by any Cup driver this season

805 — Cup start for Kevin Harvick this weekend, tying him with Jeff Gordon for ninth on the all-time list.