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.

NASCAR America Presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN with Kyle Busch

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This week’s episode of NASCAR America’s MotorMouths airs today from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and features 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver joins Rutledge Wood and Kyle Petty to discuss this week’s news as well as take fan phone calls.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Chevrolet boss happy with three-race Cup winning streak but wants more

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Even with a three-race Cup winning streak, the head of Chevrolet’s NASCAR program wants more victories as the playoffs near.

Jim Campbell, vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet, made the comments Wednesday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

In the last three races, Chevrolet has won with Alex Bowman (Chicagoland Speedway), Justin Haley (Daytona International Speedway) and Kurt Busch (Kentucky Speedway). Until that string, Chevrolet had won only once this year with Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega Superspeedway.

Last year, Chevrolet had four Cup wins, its fewest victories in Cup since scoring three wins in 1982.

“We have really, really, I think, increased the collaboration (among Chevrolet teams) to another level, and I think we need to because we’ve got to put more wins on the board,” Campbell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The Chevy camp is used to putting 10, 12, 15 wins on the board a year. Right now we’re at four. We expect more of ourselves. I know the teams are looking for more wins and I’ll call it top-five finishes. Talladega was kind of a turbocharger for us to get everyone really working at the next level.”

Chevrolet won at Talladega after an increased effort to have its teams work together throughout the weekend and during the race. Chevrolet made the effort after seeing how successful Toyota and Ford teams were at Daytona and Talladega by working together. Until then, Chevrolet had allowed its teams and drivers to go their own way at those tracks.

“Over the years, Chevy results were pretty doggone strong without a massive work-together effort,” Campbell said during the radio interview. “I think we go back to ’16 and Toyota put together an effort to get some of the (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) guys working together and I think in the fall, the Ford camp was doing that. So, it was time, it was time that we just pulled ourselves together and really worked across all of our teams.”

With seven races left until the Cup playoffs begin, Chevrolet has three drivers set for the playoffs via wins: Elliott, Bowman and Busch. Chevrolet also has three competitors who would qualify for the 16-driver playoffs as of today via points with William Byron 12th in the standings, Kyle Larson 13th and Jimmie Johnson 15th.

Johnson’s position is tenuous. He is 10 points ahead of Ford’s Ryan Newman, who holds the first spot outside a playoff position.

“I look at the trajectory,” Campbell said of Chevrolet’s progress. “Are we on the trajectory up or are we flat or are we down? I would say the momentum is going up, but it’s all performance based. We’ve got to put wins on the board, more top 10s.”

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AJ Allmendinger to drive in Watkins Glen Xfinity race for Kaulig Racing

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NASCAR On NBC analyst AJ Allmendinger will climb back behind the wheel for the August 3 NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Watkins Glen International.

Allmendinger will pilot the No. 10 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing for the second time this season.

Allmendinger is a past winner at Watkins Glen, having won the 2014 Cup race there. He has 10 prior Cup starts at the upstate New York road course, with the win, three top-five and six top-10 finishes, plus one pole.

He also has competed in one Xfinity race at Watkins Glen, starting fourth and finishing second for GMS Racing last year.

It’s an honor to be able to compete for Kaulig Racing at one of my favorite tracks, Watkins Glen International,” Allmendinger said in a team release. “I’ve been fortunate enough to win there in the Cup Series and had a strong run finishing second last season in my only Xfinity start there.

Matt Kaulig, Chris Rice and all of the guys made Daytona so enjoyable and fun, I can’t wait to get to The Glen.”

Allmendinger raced for Kaulig Racing two weeks ago in the Circle K Firecracker 250 at Daytona International Speedway on July 5, leading 33 laps and finishing third before the car was disqualified for failing post-race inspection, leaving Allmendinger with a last-place finish in the 38-car field.

Allmendinger has three additional Xfinity road course races scheduled with Kaulig Racing this season: Mid-Ohio (August 10), Road America (August 24) and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval race (September 28).

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NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kyle Busch back to No. 1, Kurt Busch to No. 3

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When it comes to this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, all we can say is, “Oh brother” … as in siblings Kyle and Kurt Busch.

Younger brother Kyle once again regained the top spot in this week’s rankings, knocking Joey Logano from the No. 1 perch after Logano held it the last two weeks.

And after not being ranked in the top 10 last week, older bro Kurt rockets up the rankings to No. 3 by virtue of his come-from-behind win last Saturday at Kentucky Speedway.

Also making a big move is Erik Jones, who goes from unranked last week to No. 4 this week. By contrast, six drivers from last week’s rankings dropped out of this week’s tabulations.

Here’s how this week’s rankings shape up:

1. Kyle Busch (39 points): Tenacious performance at Kentucky puts him back atop the rankings. Last week: 2nd.

2. Joey Logano (36 points): Car wasn’t wide enough to block all those behind him on the final restart. In his last three races on a 1.5-mile speedway, he’s finished seventh (Kentucky), third (Chicagoland) and second (Charlotte). Last week: 1st.

3. Kurt Busch (32 points): What a difference a win makes. But Busch’s ranking isn’t a total surprise. He’s been knocking at the door all season. Had he not pitted at Daytona two weeks ago, he may be riding a two-race win streak now. Last week: Unranked.

4. Erik Jones (23 points): Returns to playoff territory and seems to have momentum for a finishing kick. Third-place finish was his fourth top 10 in the last five races on a 1.5-mile speedway. That includes a third at Kansas and Kentucky and a fourth at Texas. Last week: Unranked.

5. Denny Hamlin (22 points): His pit crew has been called for an uncontrolled tire violation five times this year, tying the series high. That’s unacceptable. Despite the penalty at Kentucky, Hamlin finished fifth. Last week: 7th.

6. Kyle Larson (20 points): Top 10s in three of last four races – including a second (Chicagoland) and fourth (Kentucky) – have solidified his standing for the playoffs. Last week: Unranked.

7. Ryan Newman (16 points): Is in full grind-it-out mode for solid finishes exactly when he needs them. Finished ninth at Kentucky after starting at the rear because his car failed inspection. While he fell out of a playoff spot, he’s only two points away after scoring his fourth top-10 finish in the last five races. Last week: 8th.

8. Cole Custer (9 points): Kentucky victory in the Xfinity Series was his series-high fifth win of the year. Last week: Unranked.

9. Clint Bowyer (7 points): Ends four-race tailspin but still needs to work on amassing stage points. Last week: Unranked.

10. Chris Buescher (5 points): If all the tracks on the circuit were 1.5-milers, he’d likely be ranked higher. All four of his top 10s this year have come at 1.5-mile tracks. He’s been sixth at Charlotte, ninth  at Atlanta and 10th at Kansas and Kentucky. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Christopher Bell (4 points), Martin Truex Jr. (4 points), Tyler Ankrum (3 points).