Ryan: Speaking bluntly, Kyle Larson’s 2018 season has reigned supreme

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Kyle Larson’s remarkable run of 2018 – and how he regaled us by frankly detailing each twist and turn that comprised it — truly will be missed.

Oh, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver still will be around for the final four races of the Monster Energy Cup season. He undoubtedly will run in the top 10 over the next month. He might even win the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (where he has led 277 of the last 535 laps).

It won’t be the same, though – and not just because his singular talent makes him one of the most watchable drivers in NASCAR.

His propensity for speaking from the heart and willingly answering every question honestly is just as appealing. That precious candor inherently will be in lesser demand with his elimination from the playoffs, which is seemingly the only way that the No. 42 Chevrolet could be excised from the headlines this year.

Kyle Larson has yet to visit a Cup victory lane in 2018, but in the race for most consistently compelling driver storylines, he has been close to lapping the field for much of the season.

Consider that before, during and after every race in the Round of 12 (Dover International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and Kansas Speedway), Larson did or said something that was controversial, eye-catching or provocative (and no, we aren’t talking about the kangaroo court at Kansas that unnecessarily deflected playoff attention).

Consider that he turned the most beguiling lap of the playoffs at the Charlotte Roval and also made the most compelling pass of the playoffs (three wide into the lead past Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr.) in the opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Consider that in the stretch run of the regular season, he was a key player in the thematic mix because of what he was saying before, during and after every race (at Bristol Motor Speedway, Darlington Raceway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway). From start to middle to the playoffs, he’s been a constant focus in the Cup Series this season.

How did Larson become the most compelling weekly story?

It’s mostly because his maturation in the spotlight has been fascinating to watch. In his fifth season, it’s easy to forget he still is only 26 years old and a recently married father of two kids under the age of 4.

Try juggling all of those step changes with also becoming the de-facto shop leader of a couple of hundred people who are mostly older than you.

And many of whom also are far more sensitive to sharp criticism than a racing prodigy whose success stems partly from his ability to slough off virtually anything and move immediately onto the next green flag (which he would take nightly on any dirt track in the country, if possible).

“That’s probably been the hardest thing for me to adjust to coming from sprint cars,” Larson said during Playoff Media Day last month. “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 try to be better, and that’s been something at the shop that everyone wants me to get better at, and it’s hard.”

He assuredly will handle elimination better than in 2017 when he crashed out at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.

“I gave a terrible interview and was a major (jerk),” he said about the Texas wreck. “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.”

The trick is to avoid being too much better, which is a lesson Larson took from being a NASCAR fan during its 1990s rise when stars were bleached of some personality and vibrancy by prim and proper sponsors.

“Growing up watching NASCAR, and when it started getting corporate, I didn’t ever want to be like that,” he said. “You have to be a little bit, but I like being honest. I think fans should appreciate drivers being honest and open, and this is my personality.

“Yeah, I don’t like sugar-coating stuff. You have to here and there to not hurt feelings or get yourself in trouble, but I like being open.”

There now is more driver leeway allowed for expression (thanks to a greater leash from NASCAR and its sponsors, whose support and subsequent influence unfortunately have dwindled), but there also seems to be less time for it – or at least, that is often a reason given when it’s asked about.

In 21st century NASCAR, drivers are drowning in weekly data dumps, trying to process information from an army of engineers managing nonstop simulations and sifting through reams of figures spat out by electronic fuel injection modules.

That’s the context for why some drivers have reordered their priorities with a de-emphasis on interacting with reporters.

It hasn’t stopped Larson, though, who held a media availability last Friday at Kansas while his team was in the midst of appealing a penalty and facing long odds of advancement after a self-described “embarrassing” weekend at Talladega.

He took every question, which was notable in the lack of perfect attendance by other playoff drivers (at least one declined a direct request to appear in the media center).

It’s also significant because some of those contenders outstrip Larson in natural charisma and charm. Those traits aren’t always evident with Larson, whose bluntness will never be confused with the braggadocio of Tony Stewart. There is a decided matter-of-fact nonchalance to Larson’s swagger.

When he proclaims himself as “the last true racer” or questions the bona fides of anyone who laments needing practice to be decent or openly wonders whether his team is spending in the right places, you are getting the unfiltered stream of consciousness from a rising star whom Stewart once described as a generational talent who was a can’t-miss prospect.

It’s special that Larson is letting the world in on it, and it’s another reason he stands out as the most candid driver in Cup.

There are recent champions and stars who have been more eloquent. Some have shown greater depth of thought.

But none is speaking as forthrightly or as frequently.

Forget his prodigious knack for hugging the wall at high rates of speed, the trail blazed by Larson this year was in a rush of first-person narrative. He certainly hasn’t had the greatest season, but it still has been the most mesmerizing to follow.

So for those fortunate enough to remain in the spotlight as championship contenders, the pressure’s on.

Can you tell your story as well as Larson has this year?

We’ll be writing it if you can.

Long: Even through pain, a smile emerges from Kaulig Racing’s Chris Rice

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Chris Rice punctuates tweets with #Happy and whatever day of the week it is. Co-workers hold him accountable if he doesn’t smile because he’s always encouraging people to smile. His goal is to make everyone feel good.

Even when he hurts.

The last few months have tested Rice, president of Kaulig Racing, in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

Nick Harrison, crew chief for Justin Haley’s team, died July 21. The team’s hauler crashed Wednesday on the way to Kansas Speedway for Saturday’s Xfinity race (3 p.m. ET on NBC). A few hours later, Rice found out his family’s dog, Kiki, was missing.

“The racing is minimal to what I’ve been through this year,” he said.

Still, Rice had reason to smile this week. Both the driver and backup driver in the team’s hauler escaped serious injuries. And Kiki was found a day later about 4 miles away.

Rice says faith has helped him through such challenging times. His voice softens when he talks about how he found out Harrison had suddenly died. Rice got a call from Harrison’s phone at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, a day after the New Hampshire Xfinity race.

‘When I picked up the phone and it was not Nick, it changed my life,” Rice said.

On the phone was one of Harrison’s friends. He told Rice that Harrison had been found dead.

Rice helped Kaulig Racing grieve for Harrison while continuing with the season and the demands a racing schedule presents. His message often was that each day will get better.

Then come days like Wednesday.

The team’s hauler driver had a medical issue and the truck ran through a guardrail, went down an embankment and crashed into a wooded area in Western North Carolina.

Rice went to the crash site. Seeing the overturned hauler and debris strewn, stunned Rice. The windshield was knocked out. Wheels turned backward. The hauler smashed.

“The shock of seeing how bad it was got to me more than anything else,” he said. “The joy is that (the drivers) lived through this.

“We can replace all that other stuff. The one thing we cannot replace is life.”

Later that day, Kiki, a 12-year-old lobsta obsta that Rice and his family rescued 11 years ago, went missing.

“When I was looking for my dog, we walked and we walked and we cried and we cried,” Rice said.

Any pet is special but few are a life saver. That’s Kiki.

Rice’s wife, Tammy, is allergic to shellfish. She had an allergic reaction one night about a year ago while asleep.

“(Kiki) woke my wife up,” Rice said. “Just kept beating on her, woke her up. If not, should have never woken up.”

Tammy posted on Facebook that they had lost the dog this week. The next day, they got a call that Kiki had been found.

Even then, Rice had his doubts. There had been some foxes and coyotes in their neighborhood at times.

When they arrived at the shelter, the dog was Kiki.

It was another reason for Rice to smile.

“I don’t know what day is coming next,” Rice said. “I take what we have today and try to make the best of it. When I wake up tomorrow, I’m glad I woke up and I am going to help the next person.”

 

Daniel Hemric fastest in final practice; Kevin Harvick second

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Daniel Hemric turned the fastest lap Friday in the final Cup practice at Kansas Speedway, turning a 177.830 mph lap in his No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.

Kevin Harvick was second followed by Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski (who paced the first practice) and Ryan Blaney.

Hemric has yet to announce a ride for 2020 after RCR announced last month that the rookie would be replaced by Tyler Reddick next season.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Suarez and Aric Almirola rounded out the top 10.

Here are the rankings speeds of the other playoff drivers: Denny Hamlin 12th; Alex Bowman 15th; Joey Logano 16th; Clint Bowyer 19th; Chase Elliott 20th; and William Byron 22nd.

Click here to see where things stand in the playoffs standings entering Sunday’s second-round cutoff race at Kansas.

Click here for speeds from the final practice at Kansas.

Click here for the speeds during the first Cup practice of the weekend at Kansas.

Ryan Preece praises team for its work after hauler fire

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Ryan Preece praised his team for converting teammate Chris Buescher’s backup car into Preece’s primary car Friday after the hauler carrying Preece’s cars and equipment caught fire this week en route to Kansas Speedway.

“I know some of the guys haven’t had much sleep, very proud of them,” Preece said.

The team’s hauler pulled over near New Columbia, Illinois, on Thursday after a fire in the rear axle area that spread to the hauler. A team spokesperson told NBC Sports that crew chief Eddie Pardue and a couple of team members flew there to take what could be salvaged before driving to Kansas City.

The team spokesperson said that the lockers and uniforms in the hauler were heavily damaged. Both cars had damage with the backup car suffering smoke damage.

NASCAR allowed JTG Daugherty Racing to enter the garage at 8 a.m. ET Friday — five hours before the garage was scheduled to open — and allowed members from both JTG Daugherty teams to work on the car. Preece said he was there with the team when it arrived and worked on the interior as the crew converted the car.

“We’re in it as a team,” Preece said. “I wasn’t going to show up later in the afternoon. I wanted them to know that I was right there with them. I wanted to help in every way I could.”

Preece said his car was loose in the first practice session Friday at Kansas Speedway. He was 32nd on the speed chart in that session, making it on track about 10 minutes after practice began.

Brad Keselowski fastest in first practice at Kansas; Kyle Busch makes big save

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Brad Keselowski turned the fastest lap with a minute remaining in Friday afternoon’s first Cup practice at Kansas Speedway.

The 176.499-mph lap by the No. 2 Ford of Team Penske nipped a 176.389 mph lap by the No. 10 Ford of Aric Almirola.

Daniel Suarez was third, followed by Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney. Kurt Busch, Paul Menard, Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick and Daniel Hemric rounded out the top 10.

Here’s how other playoff drivers fared during the practice:

Kyle Larson 11th; Joey Logano 13th; Clint Bowyer 15th; William Byron 20th; Alex Bowman 21st; Kyle Busch (who had an impressive save; video below) 22nd; Chase Elliott 23rd.

Click here to see where things stand in the playoffs standings entering Sunday’s second-round cutoff race at Kansas.

Click here for the speeds during the first Cup practice of the weekend at Kansas.