Kyle Larson calls Talladega performance ’embarrassing at times’

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A season of frustrations boiled over this weekend for Kyle Larson, who described his car’s performance at Talladega Superspeedway as “pretty disappointing, embarrassing at times.”

Larson enters this weekend’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway in danger of seeing his title hopes end after his 11th-place finish Sunday. He trails Martin Truex Jr. by 26 points for the final transfer spot. The most points a driver can score in a race is 60.

Larson was disappointed Sunday with Chip Ganassi Racing’s restrictor-plate program.

“It would be nice to invest some money into our superspeedway cars, money and time,” Larson, who qualified 34th and did not lead a lap in the race, told NBC Sports. “We focus so much on mile-and-a-half stuff, which is obviously important, but these plate races mean a lot. There’s a lot of points to be made at Daytona and Talladega.

“I feel like we haven’t really tried to improve as an organization really since I’ve been at CGR. We have one more race with this package, Daytona 500. Maybe we could put some emphasis on that and try to go have a good 500 in February.”

Larson’s comments are among the critical statements he’s made this season — one where he has six runner-up finishes but no wins — and show his challenges as a team leader and when to be critical and when not to be.

“That’s probably been the hardest thing for me to adjust to coming from sprint cars,” Larson said last month of being a team leader. “Sprint cars, you’ve got to get along with three guys. It’s easy to hang out with three people, but then when you’ve got 150, 200 people that you’ve got to please and make sure you take the time to talk to, and I don’t do a good job of that at all. I don’t. I try to be better, and that’s been something at the shop that everyone wants me to get better at, and it’s hard.

“I’ve been used to working with three people. It’s been something I’ve tried to get better at, and I remember Texas last year when I crashed out, I gave a terrible interview and was a major dick. I embarrassed myself. I embarrassed the race shop. I’ve learned from that, and I’ve grown from it. I still probably don’t do a great job at it all the time, but yeah, I try to not be like that anymore, and I think I’ve done an OK job with it this year, but you can always be better.”

Larson admits he’s watched how Kevin Harvick has led that Stewart-Haas Racing team and when Harvick has been critical of the team.

“He’s very involved in his race team,” Larson said of Harvick. “I think that shows on the weekends. He’s involved in hanging out with his guys but being tough on them also. I think it’s important.

“There’s so many sensitive people in our sport, but I think it’s important to be tough on them if they make a mistake and all that, so I think Kevin is a very good leader, and I think he’s gotten a lot better at that with his age, growing up, and having family and having success and championships and all that.”

Larson is trying to find that role with his team while going through the ups and downs of the season.

His frustration last weekend can be traced to the lack of success on restrictor-plate tracks. Larson has not finished in the top 10 in any of those races the past two years. He took the white flag as the leader in the 2017 Daytona 500 but ran out of fuel and finished 12th. This season, he has not led a lap in such races and finished no better than 11th.

But it’s not just at Daytona and Talladega where there have been struggles.

A runner-up finish at Bristol in August could not completely  lift Larson’s spirits.

“Just a really frustrating day,” Larson told NBC Sports. “Our (car) was not very good from Lap 1 to Lap 500 there, but we fought and got a second-place finish out of it. Happy about running second but just disappointed because I had a lot of confidence going into this race and thought our car was really good, but we were probably a 12th- to 15th-place car. Just lined up on the right restarts about every time and was able to gain some spots on every restart and maintain and then be terrible there at the end of the run. Frustrating.”

Problems persisted as the playoffs neared.

Brad Keselowski took the lead from Larson late in the Southern 500 and went on to win that race. Larson, who led a race-high 284 laps, placed third. The following week at Indianapolis, Larson and the team had problems on pit road.

Pit road has been a mess the last, I don’t know, all year basically,” Larson told NBC Sports. “We’ll have a good couple of spots and one where we explode. I didn’t do a  good job on pit road either. I almost slid through my stall one time. Stalled it leaving the box one other time. So I didn’t do good. We’ve just got to clean it up. If we want to win a championship, we have to clean up everything but especially pit road.”

In the opening race of the playoffs at Las Vegas, Larson had flat right front tire 10 laps from the end of Stage 1 and pitted from third place, costing him stage points. He fell a lap behind and that hindered his climb through the standings in the second stage. Larson estimated he lost 12 points because of the problem — nearly half his deficit from the transfer spot in the second round.

His problems continued at the Roval when he was collected in a crash in Turn 1 late in that event. After his struggles at Talladega, Larson will need a lot to happen at Kansas for him to continue his championship quest. 

 

 

William Byron not a fan of the ‘youngest’ label

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CONCORD, N.C. — Yes, William Byron is on the young side when it comes to the Cup Series garage.

But he’d rather you not rub it in.

That’s inevitable though when you’re 21 years old and win the pole for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.

With a speed of 183.424 mph from his No. 24 Chevrolet, the Hendrick Motorsports driver is the youngest driver to sit on the pole in 60 runnings of NASCAR’s longest race.

“I don’t really like having the youngest term attached to me because I’ve always been the young guy and I just want to be part of the conversation as a normal person, no matter what age I am,” Byron said Thursday after his pole run.

The pole is the second of Byron’s career, following his Daytona 500 pole earlier this year.

But Byron isn’t the youngest Daytona 500 pole-sitter. That honor belongs to Chase Elliott, who was 20 when he won the pole in 2016.

“I don’t really look at myself as younger than other guys, just as what I’m doing and how I’m doing it compared to them or everybody out there,” Byron said. “But yeah, it’s cool. But I really just look at myself as a race car driver.”

Luckily for Byron, he has another birthday awaiting him in November and plenty of other up-and-coming drivers eager to take the “Youngest to….” honor.

Friday 5: Pressure builds for teams heading into Coca-Cola 600

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After all the fun and games of the All-Star Race, the focus returns this weekend to points and playoff spots.

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season. With only six winners this season, there’s the chance that a number of playoff spots could be claimed by points.

That increases the pressure on those fighting for those positions.

Jimmie Johnson enters the weekend 16th in the points, the final transfer spot to the playoffs. He leads Ryan Newman by eight points, Austin Dillon by 11 and Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter William Byron by 15.

Ryan Newman is eight points out of a playoff spot. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“The biggest thing is we need to get to victory lane,” Newman said after qualifying 18th Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “If you don’t get to victory lane, you don’t really have a chance.

“You’ve got to be a winner going into the last 10. Just pointing your way in doesn’t entertain me. If we do, great, and we come into a streak and progress in the last 10 (races), then even better. I really want to have that win and that momentum going into those last 10.”

Newman finished second for the championship in 2014 despite going winless that season. Since then, every driver racing for the championship in Miami has had at least one win that season. 

Some teams already are feeling that playoff pressure.

“It’s been a grind now for a couple of weeks for us,” said Dillon, the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 champion. “Hopefully, we can get a win, but it’s going to come down to points.

“I’ve been scratching and clawing every week. That’s where you hear some frustration from because you just want all you can get. When it comes down to it – and that last race happens – you’re going to want as many points as possible on your side.”

2. A fresh outlook 

Kyle Larson has been hitting the gym this season and working with Josh Wise, marking a new routine for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Wise, a former driver, now serves as the driver performance manager for Ganassi and for some of the younger drivers driving for JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.

Larson, who won last weekend’s All-Star Race, admits he’s not been one for workouts that much before this season.

“(Josh) would always still send information to me on pre-race stuff and things like that and I didn’t take it as serious as I needed to,” said Larson, who will start Sunday’s race 25th. “I kind of felt guilty about that. This year I’ve gotten into a good routine where I drop (son) Owen off at school and then I go to the shop and I work out.

“I think before it was hard for me to find that routine to get the motivation to do it. This year I feel like I’ve gotten that routine. It’s made it a lot easier and I’ve actually enjoyed it and noticed a little bit of a difference. I think just the way our sport has gone, more drivers are working out. You don’t want somebody to get an advantage or an edge on you. I feel like I’m just more prepared and confident now going to the track.”

3. Who is No. 1?

Joe Gibbs Racing has won the most races this season (seven). Team Penske won the most recent points race (Brad Keselowski at Kansas).

So which one is the strongest?

It might be another team.

I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars,” Keselowski said Thursday. “I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff, so I would expect them to be the ones to beat this weekend.”

He said that before Hendrick’s William Byron won the pole for the 600.

Kyle Busch also sees a difference in Hendrick Motorsports.

I think Hendrick has certainly found some speed,” he said. “They’re certainly getting better. They’re waking up. They’ve come to play a bit more lately.

“As far as the (Team) Penske group goes, they don’t really qualify well but they always race well. Then you look at the (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars and they qualify well and they’ll race well typically. It seems like the SHR cars are trimmed out a little bit more than some of the rest of us. They get more speed out of their cars but maybe they don’t have it for the long haul. Where it seems like the (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars are kind of a compromise.

“We might not qualify on the pole or be the best in qualifying, but we’ll race well. I wouldn’t call it middle of the road, but I feel like we’re in a position to win each week.”

4. More blocking?

In the most recent points race (at Kansas), Erik Jones upset Clint Bowyer with a block on the last lap. It was a big move from Jones who came down the track to block Bowyer and then moved up as Bowyer tried to go on the outside. That it was the last lap made it easier to understand Jones’ move.

Still, as the battles intensify, especially during restarts, more blocks are to be thrown. Did Jones’ block show others that they can be bolder in keeping a competitor behind?

“I didn’t even think twice about it when I saw it from my perspective,” Denny Hamlin said. “The person who gets blocked always makes it a bigger deal than what it really is. I think the other competitors probably don’t think anything about it to be honest with you.

“We all throw blocks at certain times and sometimes they’re not as dramatic. Sometimes … somebody would come up on you and you would just choose to run their lane and block them that way. It’s a less dramatic way of doing it but certainly one where you cut from high lane to low lane or whatever it might be, you are counting on the person either checking up or you are counting on them to lose enough air that they’re going to lose their car. That’s the whole reason you do it in the first place.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. described Jones’ block as “normal.”

“You can get mad about it, but we all do it, so you can’t get mad at somebody just because they do it to you. We throw blocks on each other all the time.

“Kyle Busch threw a block on me. I told (the spotter), ‘Hey, make sure he knows that later on in the race I’m not going to lift and he might end up in the fence.’ That’s just part of this package. The better track position you can keep yourself in, the better the car drives. … Obviously, at the end of the race, I think anything goes.”

5. An Olympian effort

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the first for rookie Daniel Hemric.

He’ll rely on some training he got a few years ago from Olympic speed skating champion Dan Jansen.

In 2016, Hemric and Tyler Reddick were teammates at Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series. Keselowski heard Jansen tell his story of overcoming defeat to win gold in his fourth Olympics.

Jansen entered his second Olympics as the favorite in the 500- and 1,000-meter races in the 1988 Games at Calgary. His sister died of leukemia hours before his 500-meter race. Jansen fell in that race. He later fell with a lap to go in the 1,000-meter race.

He failed to medal in the 1992 Games in Albertville and finally won gold in 1994 in Lillehammer in the 1,000-meter race.

After hearing Jansen speak, Keselowski approached the former Olympic champion.

“We just asked each other questions,” Keselowski said. “What did you do for this, how did you handle that? Different athletes compare notes. Some of that crosses over. A lot of it doesn’t, that’s OK. The crossover there I thought was very interesting. I wanted to apply it to our team. What he said made a lot of sense, and I thought it was something we were missing.”

Hemric had the chance to train with Jansen.

“We would do a really hard workout and get our heart rate extremely high, up in the 190s, 200 range, if not more, and have to get off that and do some hand-eye coordination stuff,” Hemric said. “Then as soon as that’s over, your heart rate is as high as it can be and you’re breathing heavy, closing your eyes and think about qualifying a lap, think about a green-white-checkered restart, putting yourself in those moments, thinking about what you would do and how you would do it. Being able to bring your heart rate down in those moments, seeing your heart, imagine seeing your heart slow down, all those things to get your body calm.”

Those are lessons Hemric continues to practice and says will help him in his first Coca-Cola 600.

“A lot of times in our sport it gets focused solely on the physical endurance part of it,” Hemric said. “The mental side in my opinion is going to be the most crucial. When you talk to other guys that have ran this race for the first time they’ve always said that when the first thing goes and they get tired, it’s their mind.

“That’s a long time to keep yourself mentally in the game. I’ve always kind of trained and had my own mental things that I do to visualize and think about those moments late in the race. It’s something I’ve had a lot of success with in the past. I’ve got to credit Dan Jansen. I’ve kept a lot of those methods in my training regimen and a lot of that was mental.”

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Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman ‘clear the air’ about All-Star incident

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CONCORD, N.C. — Five days after Clint Bowyer threw several punches at Ryan Newman as Newman sat in his car after the All-Star Race, the two sat side by side during an autograph session at a Bass Pro Shops near Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Bowyer was upset with Newman for contact that led to Bowyer crashing after last weekend’s race. After Bowyer drove to pit road, he ran to Newman’s car while still wearing his helmet — earning a rebuke from his team owner for not removing his helmet. After reaching Newman’s car, Bowyer unleashed a number of punches.

Both drivers talked this week before they got to the autograph session.

“It was good to have a conversation about it,” Bowyer said Thursday night after qualifying eighth at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. “At the end of the day there were a lot of things that escalated very fast and obviously got out of hand.

“There’s one thing I can always promise you about something like that and it is unfortunate, and you hate having things like that happen, (but) that’s probably the best attended autograph session at Bass Pro Shops that I’ve had in a long, long time.

“Obviously I don’t want to do that every weekend. At the end of the day we all love this sport, we are all passionate about this sport and every now and then that shows a little brighter.”

Bowyer was asked if he thought Newman would retaliate.

“I don’t know,” Bowyer said. “Hopefully it’s behind us. We both have a little better understanding of how it escalated into that and you’ve just got to get stuff like that behind you.”

Newman said it was good to talk to Bowyer about what happened.

“It was good to kind of clear the air,” Newman said. “It is what it is. It’s the past. Just something you always remember. You learn about somebody in a situation like that.”

Newman was asked if he’ll race Bowyer differently.

“I try to race everybody the same way and that’s hard because that’s what I get paid to do,” said Newman, who qualified 18th for the Coca-Cola 600. “I try to give-and-take when I came. The way it works anymore with stage points, especially in the All-Star race, you don’t give and take. You take.”

Starting lineup for the Coca-Cola 600

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William Byron will start first and Aric Almirola will start second for Sunday’s 60th running of the Coca-Cola 600.

Byron, 21, is the youngest pole-sitter in the race’s history.

The top five is completed by defending race winner Kyle Busch, 2017 race winner Austin Dillon and two-time 600 winner Kevin Harvick.

Click here for the starting lineup.