Ryan: These might have been Kyle Larson’s last words in NASCAR

10 Comments

Now that his NASCAR livelihood has collapsed in roughly 40 hours, it’s instructive to remember that everything started for Kyle Larson nearly as quickly as it ended.

Long before casually uttering the most dehumanizing and reprehensible of racial slurs during an iRacing stream – which sent his sponsors justifiably fleeing and subsequently caused his termination at Chip Ganassi Racing – Kyle Larson was an 18-year-old sprint car driver of limited renown when he began making trips to Indiana in May 2011 for Keith Kunz Motorsports.

Within six months, he had become the second person in history to win the Four Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway (in his first trip to the intimidating dirt half-mile) and was on the radar of every NASCAR powerhouse as a can’t-miss prospect.

“It’s crazy how quickly my life changed that year,” Larson said during a 2016 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “It felt like it took forever for me to finally get that opportunity. Once I got it, my life was changing by the day. All for great stuff. My career exploded after that.”

It’s imploded even faster than anyone could have imagined, and it now is reasonable to wonder whether Larson’s path back to a NASCAR Cup ride seems even less likely than his meteoric rise from dirt tracks to Daytona once did.

And it also seems fair to consider whether Larson, who turns 28 in July, ever truly was ready for the intense scrutiny and spotlight that accompanies racing in the major leagues.

The NASCAR media’s #BluntLarson fan club (and this author was a charter member) celebrated and encouraged the driver’s candor. There were signs that Larson was learning to use his megaphone wisely, campaigning for a larger connection to racing’s grassroots or weighing in on the debates over the quality of Cup racing.

There were other instances, though, in which red flags of indifference still signified a lack of responsibility and laissez-faire style in which he seemed to leave much of the heavy lifting with his career to team owner Chip Ganassi.

There was the poor way he admittedly treated his No. 42 team on the radio during a Martinsville race after 2017 playoff elimination. There was the playful accusation that Hendrick Motorsports was cheating (again, his words) and caused a headache for Ganassi with its engine vendor. There were the subtle reminders that NASCAR often felt no more than a 9 to 5 gig he had to work to pay the bills so he could play in the dirt.

A Darlington rain-delay joke on national TV last year about Asians and video games (“I’ll probably get in trouble for that, but I’m Asian,” Larson said. “I can say it.”) feels even more tone-deaf now.

He often came across as someone who worried too little about how his words resonated, and that was part of his appeal to fans tired of drivers who toed the line with bleached personalities. Blunt often is better.

This case, though, wasn’t about bluntness.

It was about a word that never should have resided as an option in his vernacular, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and co-host Mike Davis noted on the Dale Jr. Download podcast this week.

In his video apology Monday, Larson said he wasn’t raised this way, but he used the vile epithet so casually, it must have been ingrained at some point in his life.

It’s partly why that mea culpa rang hollow for many.

Saying sorry was absolutely necessary — but only as part of a much bigger detailing of the soul-searching steps he would take next while acknowledging the road to redemption would be difficult and long.

If Larson wants to return in Cup, it’ll take more than just NASCAR lifting an indefinite suspension for using a forbidden and inexcusable term he should have known was beyond offensive in any circumstance.

Larson’s image rehabilitation will need to go well past his genuine contrition Monday. He will need to demonstrate a real understanding of the black community and its history of civil rights struggles.

As a former Drive for Diversity entrant, no one should understand better than Larson that leveraging a platform to promote greater inclusion is a major goal in NASCAR – not just because of its quest to gain fans but also because it’s the right thing to do.

If Larson wants to race immediately, there probably is a much faster road back in the dirt. The budgets and stakes are lower, and Kyle Larson Racing offers a turnkey opportunity.

The World of Outlaws Series has extended an olive branch. So long as Larson completes sensitivity training within the next month, he can race sprint cars again on the circuit where his team already has a full-time entry.

The money that beckons there also will be decent — perhaps better than any salary he could command in NASCAR. The bottom has dropped out from the market value of Larson, who was considered the presumptive top impending free agent in Cup until Monday.

Given that driver contracts typically run three years, and that a star of his caliber still could draw mid-seven figures in a bidding war, it’s easy to conclude he cost himself at least $15 million with a few seconds of reprehensible conduct on a hot mic Sunday.

Larson lost any leverage for negotiating his biggest contract yet. While there might be a team still willing to take a flier, it probably would have to be a deep-pocketed owner who needn’t worry about finding a sponsor.

Faced with making a fraction of his Cup income over the past six years, dirt racing suddenly looks much more inviting.

Larson himself made a stir three years ago when he noted making more cash in one night of selling T-shirts to dirt fans vs. six months of merchandising sales in NASCAR.

His roots are in the dirt, and it could be enticing to race immediately while rebuilding his image rather than waiting on the sidelines while trying to claw his way back into NASCAR.

Larson is on record as saying he wants a World of Outlaws championship. The dirt racing fan base likely would welcome him back with open arms and wallets, buying up as much of his merchandise as COVID-19-battered bank accounts might allow once racing restarts around the country.

Just as quickly as he arrived, Larson suddenly could be gone and quite possibly never heard from again in NASCAR despite his boundless talent.

It would be the second-most stunning thing (ranking behind the events of this week) that ever happened to a driver known for rarely choosing his words carefully.

Clint Bowyer: ‘Getting back to our consistency’ ahead of next round

Leave a comment

After entering Saturday’s Cup race at Bristol in the final transfer spot to the Round of 12, Clint Bowyer can rest easy for now.

Bowyer is one of the 12 drivers left to fight for the Cup title after his sixth-place finish Saturday. He goes into next weekend’s race at Las Vegas 11th in the standings.

Now, Bowyer says it’s time for his No. 14 team to “live up to our capabilities.”

“I just feel comfortable, we’re getting back to our consistency,” Bowyer said Saturday night. “I guess for a long time in my career I was kind of Steady Eddie, and that’s what it takes in these playoffs, to go the rounds, you can’t make mistakes. I said that going into these playoffs. For our team, we’ve got to live up to our capabilities, and if we can do that and race to our capabilities and not make the mistakes we were making through the summer months, we can contend and move forward rounds in this playoff system, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Bowyer, who was the last driver to finish on the lead lap at Bristol, goes to Las Vegas with three consecutive top 10s to start the playoffs.

Before the playoffs opened, he had gone 11 races with just two top 10s.

“Looking forward to getting out to Sin City and having some fun out there,” Bowyer said. “Hopefully we can double down, get some stage points and continue to march forward up through this playoff system and the points. We’re definitely starting behind again, there’s no question about that.”

Bowyer will start the second round with 3,004 points, tied with Kyle Busch. Kurt Busch is 12th with 3,001 points.

MORE: Points entering second round

“We’ve got to get out there and swing for the fence,” Bowyer said. “These are the playoffs; you don’t base hit it. Steady Eddie got us through this round, but from here on you’ve got to get up to the plate and swing for the fence every time, and every decision, and that’s in the car and out of the car, we’ve got to lay it on the line and go for it, and that’s why these playoffs are fun.

Bowyer has just one top-five finish in 17 Las Vegas starts (2009) and the most recent of his four top 10s there came in 2017.

Then comes the “crapshoot” know as Talladega and the “fun” Charlotte Roval.

“I like it. I’m ready,” Bowyer said. “Things can happen. At the end of the day I’ve had a different approach to the whole thing this year. This whole damned year has been chaotic and everything else, and you’ve just got to go out there and do the best you can do and not worry about or panic about anything else. That’s all you can do anyway.”

Bristol winners and losers

Leave a comment

WINNERS

Kevin Harvick Only two drivers in the last quarter century have won 10 Cup races in a season (Jimmie Johnson in 2007 and Jeff Gordon in 1996-98). Harvick’s win at Bristol marked his career-high ninth of the season. He appears headed to join that elite class.

Austin Dillon His 12th-place finish wasn’t memorable but it was good enough to advance to the second round of the playoffs. He had failed to transfer from the first round the last two times he was in the playoffs.

Kyle BuschFinished second, scoring top-10 finishes in all three first-round playoff races. It’s the first time this season he has had three consecutive top 10s. Still, a frustrated Busch was critical of competitors and his playoff hopes.

Erik Jones His third-place finish matches his best of the season. Result came after he had to start at the rear for inspection issues (just as Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin also had to do so).

Michael McDowell His 10th-place finish is his fourth top 10 of the season. That equals how many top 10s he scored from 2017-19.

Chase Briscoe He won the Xfinity race Saturday at Bristol for his seventh victory of the season.

Sam MayerThe 17-year-old won his first career Truck race and followed it a few hours later by winning the ARCA race at Bristol.

LOSERS

Ryan Blaney Failed to advance to the second round, a round where he could be among the favorites to win a race. He was in position to win at Las Vegas in the spring before being called to pit before the overtime restart and losing the lead. He’s won the past two Talladega races, including last year’s playoff race there. He won the inaugural Charlotte Roval in 2018. What might have been. But a 10-point penalty for an inspection issue at Darlington and struggles there and at Richmond doomed him.

William Byron His playoffs ended with contact before the halfway mark. 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Contact with Jimmie Johnson sent him into the wall. Stenhouse finished last. It is the third time he’s finished 40th this season.

Kevin Harvick wins Bristol night race

Leave a comment

Kevin Harvick held off Kyle Busch to win Saturday’s Cup night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Harvick came out on top after a spirited battle with Busch over the last 40 laps of the race. Harvick claimed his ninth win of the season, a career-best mark. He previous high was eight wins in 2018.

“To beat Kyle Busch at Bristol, I kind of got myself in a little bit of a ringer there,” Harvick told NBCSN. “I hit a lapped car and got a hole in the right-front nose, but just kept fighting. We don’t have anything else to lose. We were here to try to win a race.”

The top five was completed by Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick and Aric Almirola. Clint Bowyer finished sixth and was the last car on the lead lap.

MORE: Race results, points standings

MORE: What drivers said after the race

Busch, who is now winless through the first 29 races of the season, finished second after he started from the rear due to two pre-race inspection failures. He took the lead for the first time when he left pit road first during the Stage 1 break. He wound up leading 159 laps to Harvick’s 226.

Harvick’s nine victories has him on pace to become the first driver to win at least 10 Cup races in a season in more than a decade and only the third driver to reach that mark in the past quarter century. Harvick has won three of the last five races.

“It’s just been a weird year, but it’s been an unbelievable year on the racetrack,” Harvick said. “I can’t thank everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing enough.”

Jimmie Johnson is the last driver to accomplish the feat. He won 10 races in 2007. The only other driver to reach that mark in the last 25 years is Jeff Gordon. He won 13 races in 1998 and 10 races each in 1996 and ’97.

The last driver not from Hendrick Motorsports to reach at least 10 wins in a season was Rusty Wallace. He won 10 times in 1993 for car owner Roger Penske.

Ryan Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron and Cole Custer entered the race below the cutline to advance to the Round of 12 and were all eliminated from contention.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Elliott

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Busch

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Erik Jones earned his second top five in the last three races … Tyler Reddick earned his third top five of the season and his first since the July 19 race at Texas … Ryan Preece placed ninth for his first top 10 of the year … Michael McDowell finished 10th for his fourth top 10 this season, a career-best

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished last after he was eliminated in a crash on Lap 29 after he made contact with Jimmie Johnson … Matt DiBenedetto’s chances of advancing in the playoffs were dashed when he had to pit for loose right rear tire on Lap 187 and then was caught speeding on pit road after returning to the lead lap. He finished 19th …. Martin Truex Jr. finished 24th after he had to pit for a tire issue on Lap 214 … Denny Hamlin finished 21st after he rammed into the back of Truex moments after he exited pit road following his stop … William Byron was eliminated from the race and playoff contention late in Stage 2 after he ran into the back of Christopher Bell … Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski placed 34th after he lost power steering early in the final stage and was black flagged for not meeting minimum speeding. After a lengthy stay in the garage, Keselowski returned to the race with about 105 laps left in the race.

WHAT’S NEXT: Round of 12 opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 7 p.m. ET Sept. 27 on NBCSN.

 

What drivers said after Bristol night race

Leave a comment

Kevin Harvick – winner: “We had just a really, really good Busch Light Ford Mustang tonight. I got it a little dinged up with 50 or 60 laps to go. I knocked a hole in the nose and made it a little too tight through the center of the corner, but turned into a heck of a race, in and out of traffic there with Kyle (Busch). He got me once pinned up there in traffic and I was able to do the same thing back and then hold the lead there until the end. Just really proud of everybody for everything that they’ve done all year and just continuing to fight, and there’s not many races that you can win that are like winning here at the Bristol night race. That was a lot of fun.”

Kyle Busch – finished 2nd: “Frustrated over finishing second.  You know, just felt like this was one of our greater shots to win, and I don’t know. You know, just come up short. You know, Skittles Camry was fast and we had a good car, one that was in contention all night long.  Fired off the start of the race, I was like, oh, wow, this is a pretty good car and then got beat by another really good car, I guess.”

Erik Jones – finished 3rd: “I guess it was a solid day. I thought we had a good car there at the end. But had to start at the back and that took a while to work through there and get some track position. It is really challenging to pass here, even though it is a short track. But a good run. The Auto Owners Camry got better all night, and honestly the last run of the race was our best. We got up there into third and I kind of knew I couldn’t beat those guys straight up, so I tried to save a little bit on the front side of the run and run at the end hard, and just kind of ran out of time. I just started getting to those guys there when we took the checkered.”

Tyler Reddick – finished 4th: “Our No. 8 Childress Vineyards Chevrolet Camaro was a fast one tonight, and we had a great finish to show for it at Bristol Motor Speedway. It took a couple adjustments to get our car to where I needed it to be, but our communication as a team on what adjustments to make has been a big focus for us over the past few weeks and that paid off during tonight’s race. I fired off a little loose on the bottom and tight on the top, so our team had a decision to make on what to focus on. I felt that the top the better groove for our car, so we chose to work on loosening up our Chevrolet a little bit throughout the night and got it in a really good spot for the final stage.

“Those adjustments made it so I was able to cut through traffic during that last stage and race our way into the top five for the last 100 laps or so. I think I may have pushed my front tires a little bit too much on that final run, but this was a really good night for our team. We’re chasing wins in these remaining races while also working on building a strong notebook for next year, and this is a solid step in the right direction for both of those goals.”

Aric Almirola – finished 5th: “We had a solid top five tonight at Bristol and we’re moving on to the Round of 12 again. It was a great run. We missed it a bit to start. This Smithfield Ford team worked so hard to make the right adjustments all night. I was scrapping in the car to get everything I could get. Really proud of everybody on the race team. Ready to see if we can’t make it happen again in this next round.”

Clint Bowyer – finished 6th: “We definitely did what we needed to do. Our Rush Truck Centers/Cummins Engine Ford Mustang was pretty good tonight. We were just way too loose to run with (Harvick or Busch). The cycle on the tires when we actually had that caution, had a cycle on the tires and that usually makes it tighter and that was by far our best run. We drove up through them pretty good and put ourselves in position there, but as soon as the green flag dropped right there at the end I was right back loose again.  We did what we had to do. Obviously, you come here to win a race and be on top of that building over there, but proud of the guys and all their efforts.  We’re moving forward and that’s all that matters right now.”

Chase Elliott – finished 7th: “Definitely excited to move on in the playoffs. I thought the NAPA team had a solid race tonight. It’s unfortunate the way the pit cycle went there, but I felt like we were close. Not sure if we were as good as (Harvick) and (Kyle Busch), but I thought we were close to them. I am proud of the effort and I hope this next round is good for us. It’s definitely not going to get any easier as it goes. Nice to get the stage point and stage win and we will try again in Vegas.”

Ryan Preece – finished 9th: “That was a really fun night at Bristol Motor Speedway. This year has obviously had its challenges for us, and we’ve worked so hard to try and make the strategy play in our favor and get JTG Daugherty Racing the finish we deserve and it feels really good to be able to put it all together. Our BUSH’S Beans Chevrolet was really good on the long run … The cautions finally fell our way and we were able to capitalize on it. Every week for the rest of the season is so important to keep focusing on the positives and get as many good finishes as we can and to be able to get BUSH’S Beans as top-10 finish at their home track is something we’re all proud of.”

Michael McDowell – finished 10th: “Well, what an awesome night for our No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford Mustang. We got a top-10 at Bristol. I’m really proud of everybody at Front Row Motorsports. I’m so thankful to Bob Jenkins and all of my guys for giving me this opportunity. It’s the best season that I’ve ever had and another top 10 really helps to keep our momentum rolling. We also have a Ford in Victory Lane, so that’s awesome. I’m just super-excited to get a top 10 at Bristol.”

Joey Logano – finished 11th: “We had a car that was probably top five. It wasn’t as good as (Harvick and Busch) but we had something that was competitive and had that longer run with a loose right rear wheel and we tried to make it last long and it started to get pretty bad. Here, if you go too long it will ruin your chances for the day. It felt like we were late enough in the run that maybe we would start to cycle if we pit. We were so close. The caution was because of (Harvick) pitting and bottling everyone up. We were probably 10 or 15 laps from the cycle being complete and getting our lap back and being in contention for an even better finish. That is how it goes sometimes. We had a solid car and we have a lot of momentum still into the playoffs with three really solid runs outside of one little hiccup here. We will move on to the next round and be happy.”

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th: “We did what we had to do tonight in our Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Off Road/ E-Z-GO Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. We advanced to the Round of 12 in the NASCAR Playoffs. We started off really strong, but our Chevy ended up getting extremely tight in Stage 2. We recovered from that and were running in the top 10 when Harvick slowed on the track to make a green-flag pit stop. I got on my brakes as hard as I could to avoid hitting him, but a lapped car was in the middle of the track and I had nowhere to go. My RCR team did a great job making repairs, but we were never able to catch the break we needed to get back into the top five. Our car was fast overall tonight, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish during the remainder of the season. We’ll go to Las Vegas next week and try to get a win.”

Ryan Blaney – finished 13th: “We started off tight and then that second run we got really tight after the competition caution and lost a lot of track position. After that, we kind of were able to drive up through there. We got to fifth or sixth the one time and we were super tight again and it went really long. That just kind of made it worse and we just kind of got behind there. The track just swung really tight. I was kind of tight all night, but it just swung really tight on us and that was just the wrong direction that the track needed to be at. That stinks.”

Kurt Busch – finished 15th: “It was a good day, we had a loose wheel and we battled after that, but our stage points are what really helped the Monster Energy Chevy tonight. That gave us the cushion we needed to absorb the problem that we had. All-in-all we advanced and that’s what we expected to do and that is what we have to continue to do. We will do it through teamwork and execution. The next round we have a mile-and-a-half Superspeedway and then the Roval. We’ve just got to be on our toes, keep adjusting and adapt to all the things that are coming our way in the next round.”

Alex Bowman – finished 16th: “That was pretty eventful. We had a really good car all night. Our Axalta Camaro was really fast. Probably going to end up somewhere in the top five, at least the top 10. We just had a tire issue under green there in the last stage and had to pit. Unfortunately, we were not in our window to pit. Once the caution did come out, we weren’t able to take the wave around. We were just kind of trapped there and unfortunately couldn’t recover from that. … So awesome to advance to the next round. Proud of my team. This is the strongest we have been going into the Round of 12. I feel like we have some great tracks for us coming up. This is the most consistent we have been as a race team. I am bummed we lost our streak of top-10 finishes, but we have plenty more opportunities throughout the year to have great cars and contend for wins. Wish we would have ended up a little better, but we are ready for Vegas.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 18th: “Our Germain Racing team battled all night long. It was a really good night for our GEICO Camaro ZL1 1LE. Everyone on our team executed throughout the entire race, from Matt (Borland) making good calls, the pit crew having great stops and Chris (Monez) on the spotter stand helping me navigate traffic. We all worked hard and it paid off. The car was its best at the end of the race, which is all you can ask for as a driver. I’m proud of our effort and we will keep digging to finish strong.”

Matt DiBenedetto – finished 19th: “If we didn’t have bad luck, we wouldn’t have any luck at all. I don’t know. It’s just frustrating. I hate it. I want to get Menards and Dutch Boy and this team a good run like they deserve because we’ve had a rough couple weeks, and had a loose wheel, overcome it — drive through the entire field with a lot of green flag. We get to seventh, hoping for a caution, but either way we drove to the top 10 — good run — and I was screaming, ‘Debris in (Turn) 1,’ three damn times and we found it. We ran it over multiple times and I cut the right-rear down and it just ruins our day.”

John Hunter Nemechek – finished 20th: “The crew put together a solid top 15, maybe even top-10 car tonight at Bristol. Our No. 38 Mystik Lubricants Ford Mustang was decent on the long run, but we struggled a little with drive off. After the first stage, it was looking like we were going to have a decent night. We tried a couple of different adjustments on pit road tonight – some of them helped, some not as much. Overall, we wanted to be able to finish a few spots higher. Thanks to our partners at Mystik Lubricants for coming on board with us this season. We’ll debrief this week and come back ready for Las Vegas.”

Denny Hamlin – finished 21st: “I think (Martin Truex Jr.) must have been on the splitter or something when he came out after he took a green flag pit stop. He just kind of went straight off of the corner. I was running the top and when he went straight, he saw he was going to hit the wall, so he slammed on the brakes and I was going, so I jammed up under him. That was unfortunate. That was bad luck for us. I think he was a couple laps down, but they were fighting their car all day. I’m sure they got in the next round, but we just had some bad luck. We drove up to fifth, and I felt pretty good. We caught the lead within three seconds – drove to them within three seconds, so I was pretty happy about where we were going to be, and then we crashed.”

Bubba Wallace – finished 22nd: “We had a pretty fast No. 43 Cash App Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE tonight – probably the best car we’ve ever brought to Bristol (Motor Speedway), so that was a positive. We got a stage point in Stage 1. I thought the guys were doing a really good job throughout the night. Our Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE was on the tight-side a little bit. We didn’t really seem to help it, but we didn’t really hurt it all either – kind of just stayed the same balance from the start of the race to the finish. A little frustrating, but super frustrated that we just can’t seem to get some luck on the strategy side. Unfortunate that we got trapped three-laps down, or whatever it was, and you’re just stuck, especially that late in the race. We’ll go onto the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and see if we can turn it around.”

Cole Custer – finished 23rd: “We just struggled here. I don’t know why. I’ve always liked Bristol, it just hasn’t come together this year here. We’ve just really struggled. I just can’t thank everybody enough at SHR, everybody at HaasTooling.com, Autodesk.  I just wish we had a better night. We were just a little bit off. I think we can hang our heads high on what we’ve done this year, but we still have a lot of races to win the rest of this year, so we just have to keep building.”

Daniel Suarez – finished 26th: “We deserved better than that. I don’t know what happened at the end there, but it should not have happened. We had a few things to work on at the start of the race. Then, in the middle part of the race, we were super tight for a long time until the Toyota Genuine Parts & Service car really started coming to me on old tires. We didn’t make any changes on the last stop and it was feeling pretty good until what happened there at the end. That’s Bristol, I guess. Let’s go to Las Vegas.”

Brad Keselowski – finished 34th: “It was a frustrating night, there is no way around that. I am thankful we were able to lead some laps but that certainly was not what we were hoping for. We had a power steering pump issue. I am not sure exactly what it was. I will let the team guys get to that and chase it down. Obviously it killed out chances. I don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t have that problem but we did so we will move on to the next week and I am thankful we had the win at Richmond last week to fall back on.”

William Byron – finished 38th: “I think the No. 51 car (Joey Gase) checked up in the middle of the straightaway. As fast as we were running the top, I was right behind the No. 95 (Christopher Bell) and I had literally nowhere to go. You can’t stop in the middle of the straightaway when everybody is so committed to the top like that. Just ridiculous that that’s what takes us out. I thought honestly we had a shot to run top-five or seven. The car was really, really good. We just needed a couple good pitstops. We were running probably ninth or tenth there. Just super disappointing – I’ve got to go back and watch that because that was kind of ridiculous.”