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.

Goodyear tire info for Martinsville Speedway

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NASCAR Cup and Truck teams continue their respective playoffs this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

The Cup Series begins its Round of 8, while the Gander Outdoors Truck Series will contest its middle race of the Round of 6.

Cup and Truck teams will run the same tire setup at Martinsville, the same tires both series have run at the .526-mile bullring since 2017.

It’s getting later in the fall and we are likely to have cloudy conditions and temperatures in the 60-degree range at Martinsville this week, so track temps will be low, making it more difficult for the track to take rubber,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “Because of the time of year we run at Martinsville, we’ve worked hard over the past several years to come up with a tread compound that will lay rubber in the concrete corners, even in cool temperatures.

Generally, Martinsville has produced some of the best racing on the circuit and that only seems to have been enhanced by the track consistently taking rubber and having multiple racing lines. We continue to work on keeping up with Martinsville and making adjustments where needed, holding a test there this past summer and looking ahead to 2020 when we will have a full fledged night race at the track.”

According to wunderground.com, the forecast calls for a temperature of 58 degrees with a 40 percent chance of rain at the scheduled 1:30 p.m. ET start time for Saturday’s Truck race, and a temperature of 66 degrees with a 19 percent chance of green flag at the 3 p.m. ET scheduled start time for Sunday’s Cup race.

Here is the tire information for this weekend’s races at Martinsville:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Short Track Radials

Set limits: Cup: 3 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying/start of race and 9 sets for race (8 race sets plus 1 set transferred from qualifying or practice); Truck: 5 sets for the event.

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4588; Right-side – D-4722

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,221 mm (87.44 in.); Right-side — 2,251 mm (88.62 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 10 psi; Left Rear — 10 psi; Right Front — 23 psi; Right Rear — 22 psi

As on most NASCAR ovals 1 mile or less in length, teams will not run inner liners in their tires at Martinsville.

NASCAR penalty report after Kansas

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NASCAR issued one penalty from this past weekend’s racing action at Kansas Speedway.

Chris Gayle, crew chief for the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing NASCAR Cup Toyota driven by Erik Jones, has been fined $10,000 for lug nut(s) not properly installed following Sunday’s race.

There were no penalties assessed to the teams of Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick stemming from the altercation following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.

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Ron Hornaday Jr., Bobby Labonte to take part in Martinsville Truck race activities

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Martinsville Speedway will honor one NASCAR Hall of Famer and one inductee before Saturday’s NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 Truck Series race.

Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. will serve as grand marshal for the race, while Bobby Labonte, who will be inducted into the Hall in January, will serve as the honorary starter.

Bobby Labonte. Photo: Getty Images.

We are honored to have 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Ron Hornaday Jr. as Grand Marshal and 2020 inductee Bobby Labonte as Honorary Starter at the first NASCAR Hall of Fame 200,” NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelly said in a statement. “Ron is the series’ only four-time champion. As the 2000 premier series champion and 1992 Xfinity champion, Bobby is one of only 31 drivers who has won races in all three NASCAR national series with his lone truck series win coming at Martinsville.”

Said Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway: “We appreciate the NASCAR Hall of Fame making it possible to have two great NASCAR champions available to meet our fans Saturday morning before the NASCAR Hall of Fame 200. Having Ron and Bobby be a part of our race weekend is special for everyone at Martinsville Speedway.”

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NASCAR entry lists for Martinsville

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Eight drivers remain in the playoffs for Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

In addition to the Cup Series, the Gander Outdoors Truck Series is also in action this weekend at Martinsville, on Saturday. The Xfinity Series is off this weekend.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for both series:

Cup – First Data 500 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN)

There are 38 cars entered.

Two cars do not have drivers listed yet on the entry list:

* The No. 51 Petty Ware Racing Chevrolet.

* The No. 52 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

JJ Yeley is in the No. 53 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

Joey Logano won this race last fall. Denny Hamlin finished second and Martin Truex Jr. was third.

In this year’s spring race, Brad Keselowski won, followed by Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch.

Click here for the entry list.

Trucks – NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 (1:30 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

There are 32 Trucks entered in the middle race of the Round of 6 of the Truck playoffs.

One Truck does not have a driver listed yet: The No. 0 Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing Chevrolet.

Tanner Gray, who won the 2018 NHRA Pro Stock championship, makes his Truck Series debut in the No. 15 DGR-Crosley Toyota.

Sam Mayer makes his second start of the season in the No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet.

Danny Bohn makes his first career Truck Series start in the No. 30 On Point Motorsports Toyota.

Carson Ware makes his first career Truck Series start in the No. 33 Reaume Brothers Racing Chevrolet.

Dawson Cram makes his first Truck Series start of the season and fourth of his career in the No. 34 Reaume Brothers Racing Toyota.

Jeb Burton makes his second Truck Series start of the season in the No. 44 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet.

Also, one week after clinching the ARCA championship, Christian Eckes will make his seventh Truck start of the season, once again piloting the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.

Johnny Sauter won this race last fall. Brett Moffitt was second and Myatt Snider was third.

Kyle Busch won this year’s spring race, followed by Ben Rhodes and Brett Moffitt.

Click here for the entry list.

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