Friday 5: Pair of drivers question further limiting Cup drivers in Xfinity

Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

As NASCAR debates if to further restrict Cup drivers in the Xfinity Series, two drivers suggest that the decision could have a far-reaching impact on Cup.

Kyle Larson, who finished runner-up in three Xfinity races to Cup drivers in 2013 — the only season he ran every race in that series — worries that if future Xfinity drivers aren’t challenged by Cup competitors as he was, it could hurt them.

“I would just be worried that you’re making the guys that come from Xfinity, your young guns, that make it to Cup in future years, I don’t think they’re going to be up to speed enough,’’ Larson said Thursday during a visit to a Chevrolet plant that assembles the Camaro ZL1 in Lansing, Michigan.

“When I ran Xfinity, I learned a ton off of getting beat by Kyle Busch and (Brad) Keselowski and (Joey) Logano and whoever other Cup drivers that were racing every week with me. It made me better. I learned a lot.

“Now, I feel like if you limit those guys getting to race with us, they don’t know where the bar is set. It’s actually set when they’re racing just with Xfinity regulars who don’t really have a lot of experience. I feel like they’re making our sport less competitive for the future when you do that.’’

Larson’s comments, in a way, echoed what Kevin Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” earlier this week.

Harvick, who will compete in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Michigan International Speedway, gave his opinion in response to the fact that the series has had 11 different winners in the first 12 races.

“Four of those 11 races everybody was excluded from the Cup side to run in the Xfinity races,’’ Harvick said, noting the Dash 4 Cash races that did not allow any Cup drivers. “I think as you look at the variety of winners, I think that’s definitely intriguing for the series.

“Look, there’s a lot of great race car drivers in the Xfinity Series and there’s a lot of great young drivers, but I think right now one of the interesting things to me is looking at the young guys in Cup and how much longer it has taken them to win.

“Is that a result of dumbing down the Xfinity Series by not letting as many Cup guys in the series? Are those guys learning the same things that they would be learning if you had it how it was 10 years ago with more Cup guys in the series? Are they learning as much? Are they rushed? What’s the difference?

“Why is it taking them longer to win in Cup now? Why aren’t the young guys winning as many Cup races as what the young guys used to win 10-15 years ago when they came to Cup? Lot of interesting questions.’’

Many of the top young drivers viewed as most likely to win — Larson, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez — competed in Xfinity against Cup drivers on a regular basis before moving to Cup. While experience is a key, their teams also are a factor.

Hendrick Motorsports has struggled this season, making the challenge greater for Elliott, Bowman and rookie William Byron. Chevy teams are behind as they sort out the Camaro ZL1. Blaney moved from the Wood Brothers to Team Penske and that group has been fast but inconsistent at times. Jones and Suarez have had noteworthy moments but also lacked consistency at Joe Gibbs Racing.

If further restrictions are put on Cup drivers, then it could lead to the concerns Larson and Harvick posed.

With five of the top 12 drivers in points heading into Sunday’s race at Michigan age 38 and older, another transition could start in the next few years, creating an avenue for more young drivers to enter Cup.

Will they be prepared for the jump to Cup when their time comes?

2. What’s next for the All-Star Race aero package?

NASCAR has yet to state where the All-Star Race package will be used in Cup this season.

Matt Kenseth is clear on how he feels about the package and where it should not be run.

“I can’t say I was a huge fan of it,’’ said Kenseth at a tire test this week at Darlington Raceway. “I don’t know how different it will be once everybody has some time to work on it. I really think that for mile-and-a-halves, it’s probably not the right package, I think, depending on what everybody is looking for.

“Charlotte was a good race, especially the Open, but man if you look back at last year’s races, it was a really good race, too, the Open was. It was crazy, three-wide for the win at the end. When you have those short races and you throw cautions every 20 laps, it’s going to stay bunched up and be pretty exciting.

“I think there’s probably some potential there for some tracks, maybe somewhere like Indy where it was good for the Xfinity cars. Even as we saw at Pocono last weekend (in the Xfinity Series), it really wasn’t that great.’’

Greg Ives, crew chief for Alex Bowman, says that 1.5-mile tracks could be key for this package.

“If we’re going to try to do it as a season-long package, I think we need to try a race track that is the bulk of what we do, the mile-and-a-half,’’ Ives told NBC Sports on Thursday.

“Michigan, I’ve heard floated around. That will turn into another superspeedway-type race. … It’s going to be tricky to try. Michigan, I think, is going to be a tough place to get a true understanding of how a mile-and-a-half is going to race. ‘’

Only two 1.5-mile tracks remain before the playoffs begin — Chicagoland (July 1) and Kentucky (July 14).

The Xfinity cars will run a similar package this weekend for the second race in a row.

“I think what us as an industry and me as a crew chief have to have is an understanding of what our future product needs to be,’’ Ives said. “Four hundred horsepower cars are probably not the perfect answer when you’re a premier series in racing, but there is something that can be done to make our fans appreciate the racing, appreciate not only the driver’s talent because it takes a talent to get into these races.

“That’s what the compromise needs to be. Drivers, they want to be able to race, race hard and showcase their talent.’’

3. Betting on NASCAR

Delaware became the first state outside of Nevada on Tuesday to offer betting on several different sports, including NASCAR.

Bets are being taken for this weekend’s Cup and Xfinity races at Michigan.

As of Thursday, Kevin Harvick is the favorite to win Sunday’s Cup race at 3/1, followed by Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch at 4/1. Next is Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney at 12/1. They are followed by Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin at 18/1.

New Jersey lawmakers passed legislation to authorize legal sports betting in that state on Thursday, sending the measure to Gov. Phil Murphy for his signature, which would make the state second to Delaware to offer sports betting outside Nevada.

4. Could it be four in a row for Kyle Larson?

Kyle Larson is going for his fourth consecutive victory at Michigan this weekend. While among the favorites this weekend, he knows the challenges to keeping this streak going.

“I think the last one we won was really difficult,’’ he said. “I ran like 10th all race long but we were able to have some good pit strategy and a good restart at the end. The other two we won I felt like we had the best car, probably, going into the race. Where right now you look at the same three guys (Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick) as being the favorites.

“We’re just a little step behind those guys right now. I think with having three wins, confidence will be up and that could be important.’’

If Larson wins, he’d match what Bill Elliott did when he swept the Michigan races in 1985 and ’86.

5. Close to 100 percent

Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer are the only drivers who have completed more than 99 percent of the 4,462 laps run this year.

Logano has completed all but two laps this year. Bowyer has completed all but 28 laps this season.

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