Friday 5: Studious Kyle Larson looks to ‘finally close one out’ at Miami

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Kyle Larson can’t wait for Sunday’s Cup race. And it’s not because Homestead-Miami Speedway is among his best tracks.

He just wants to be back in the car.

“These weeks are long,” Larson told NBC Sports.

While most drivers have become acclimated to no practice and qualifying at most NASCAR events, it is new to Larson, who missed the final 32 Cup races last season after losing his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing. With less time in the car, he has spent more time on race preparation. Still, a racer wants to race.

“It’s been probably since 2009 or ’08 or even before that where I’ve only been in a race car one day a week,” Larson said. “If I’m only racing one day a week with NASCAR, you’re usually in the car practicing for a couple of days. They’ve been long weeks waiting for the weekends. Just ready to get down to Florida and hopefully have a good weekend at one of my best tracks and lead some laps and finally close one out.”

In 14 races across the Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series at Miami, Larson has eight top-five finishes and one victory, which came in the 2015 Xfinity race. His best Cup finish there is second in 2016 when Jimmie Johnson won to claim his record-tying seventh series title

Those results lead some to view Larson as one of the favorites this weekend, along with defending race winner Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott.

Until they get the chance to duel Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox), the focus is on race preparation for Larson. He’s already seen how the extra work helps.

“I think maybe before when there was practice you would definitely still do some studying (but), at least me, I’d be like, ‘OK, I’ve done my studying and now I’m going to go practice and I’ll figure it out,’ ” Larson said. “If there was something I wasn’t prepared for before practice or whatever, I’ve got a few hours to figure it out. Now you don’t have that time.

“Last week, before the road course, I watched as much video as I could, studied SMT data, spent a ton of time on iRacing, running a bunch of laps. So I felt like I was as prepared for a race last week as I’ve ever been as far as studying for an event. I felt like it definitely benefited me. I felt like it took me just a few laps to get comfortable.

“I wasn’t the fastest car. I was probably a fifth- or sixth-place car. I don’t know if I would have been a fifth- or sixth-place car if I had not put that much work in.”

He was in position to win last weekend’s Daytona road course race until he spun into the tire barriers after passing Kurt Busch for second place with eight laps to go.

Larson was behind Busch and in front of Brad Keselowski and Christopher Bell, when he went under Busch in Turn 6, a left-hand turn that exits the infield part of the course.

Larson was on the same tire strategy as Bell, the eventual winner. Both had the freshest tires of any driver in the top five when Larson made his move on Busch.

“I think I just got to the brakes way deep and maybe I got some slight wheel hop,” Larson said of the incident. “I didn’t want to door slam Kurt, so I tried to get away from him and slide in front of him, and I hit the tire barriers. I knew I was in the best position on tires. I didn’t have enough time to check my mirrors to see if it was (Keselowski) or (Bell) behind me.

“I wanted the buffer of (Busch) between me and (Bell) because I felt if I could get in front of Kurt quickly, I could get after (leader Joey Logano) and get working on him. I knew I had better tires than him. I had already passed him the run before, so I knew I was better than him, but I also knew that Bell was better than me. I wanted to beat him to the front and just made a mistake.

“I knew the position I was in. I knew I could be patient, but I saw an opportunity in front of me and jumped too quickly on it. Wish I could have that corner back.”

Larson lost all his track position after sliding into the tire barriers and finished 30th last week. That followed a 10th-place result in the Daytona 500. Larson said he’s pleased with how well he and crew chief Cliff Daniels have worked in their first season together at Hendrick Motorsports.

“I had a good feeling about him before the season started but now getting a couple of races (in), I really love how thorough he is throughout the week and even on the radio on the weekends during the race,” Larson said of Daniels. “I feel like we have definitely gotten off on a great foot.”

2. Fast way around Miami

After two first-time winners to open the season, could there be a third? If so, might it be Tyler Reddick?

He won two of his three Xfinity starts at Miami by running inches from the wall, a trait taught to him by Kyle Larson. It could help him Sunday.

Reddick learned how to run the line when he was with Chip Ganassi Racing and drove the team’s Xfinity car in the 2017 race as it went for the owners title.

“It came quickly once he kind of explained it to me because of our similar background,” Reddick said of Larson, alluding to their dirt racing experience.

This will be their first time to race each other in Cup on this track. They ran against each other twice in the Truck Series there. In 2016, Reddick was second and Larson fourth. In 2014, Larson was second and Reddick sixth.

“I’m actually excited to race with him there because we both grew up with the … foundation of learning how to race from those outlaw karts,” Reddick told NBC Sports. “We did it at the same tracks at about the same time together, so we got to know each other’s driving style.” 

Larson admits that at Miami, “I feel like when I’m watching (Reddick), I’m watching myself” run along the wall.

He’s not the only one. Asked who are the best at running the wall at Miami, Cole Custer said Larson and Reddick.

“I think those guys have definitely probably been at the top of the sheet on that line, and they’re probably the ones who are the most committed to it,” Custer said. “It’s one of those things. You definitely have some speed up there, but it’s a matter of risk versus reward and making sure you don’t ruin your day up there also.”

Kyle Larson races along the wall as he battles Kevin Harvick for position in the 2018 Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Photo: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

While car control is critical in running the high line, Larson notes the marks on the wall and what he hears help him navigate the turns.

“Typically people hit the wall,” Larson told NBC Sports. “They usually always hit it in the same spot every year. Once you get 40-50 laps into the race and people have hit the wall, you can kind of use those marks as points of where you need to get your car turned. So I definitely use those areas where the wall turns black as parts where I want to have certain angles on my car to help get me through the corner.

“The sound of the engine, the exhaust comes out the right side, so the closer you get to the wall, the louder it is getting, bouncing off the wall. There’s a pitch change when you get where you need to be. I don’t really know how far it is off the wall but my brain, I guess, or my senses kind of know with the sound that I’m hearing, that’s how close I want to be to the wall.”

Larson also notes that he’ll need to be good along various lines in the corners and not just close to the wall.

“I’m really good at running the wall there and so is Reddick, but I can’t name a time that a Cup race was won there against the wall,” Larson said. “I’ve tried to not rely on the wall so much the last few times that I’ve been there, but I made so much speed up there in lap time it’s hard to kind of get away from it. We’ll see.

“Maybe my car will be different this year being with Hendrick Motorsports (that) I won’t need to rely on running the wall as much, and I can be a little safer off it. I know the wall has lap time, so if I ever need to get up there, I know I can make lap time, but I’ve got to get to the end of the race first.”

3. Questionable caution?

NASCAR followed its rules in calling for a caution when there was rain over part of the Daytona road course last week, but the situation raises questions of if the rule should continue with how it can impact a race.

Section 10.6.5.a states: “When the race is started under ‘dry’ or normal conditions and NASCAR determines conditions are too ‘wet” to continue under ‘dry’ condition equipment, NASCAR will illuminate the caution lights and/or display the yellow flag.”

NASCAR issued a caution less than 15 laps from the finish with rain over part of the 3.61-mile course. The caution split the field. Several cars pitted for tires — but not rain tires. Among those who pitted were eventual winner Christopher Bell and eventual third-place finisher Denny Hamlin. Joey Logano stayed out, inheriting the lead. He went on to finish second on older tires.

With new tires faster, the caution gave those who pitted an advantage. The caution also bunched the field, leading to more cautions. Cars were not out of the infield on the restart before a caution was called for Tyler Reddick’s damaged car. On the next restart, the field again didn’t exit the infield before a yellow flag.

NASCAR cited safety as a reason for the caution for rain over part of the track. The question is if NASCAR should continue to make that call or allow drivers and teams to decide if and when to pit for rain tires.

“The way to get away from this gray area of a call on whether to switch to rain tires or not is to allow the teams to do it,” Kurt Busch said. “But here we are at Daytona, doing 180 mph on the back straightaway or in the banking on the oval and if we’re on slicks and a rain shower hits that section of the track and cars are spinning out wrecking, then the teams are going to be like ‘Where was the yellow?’ So, it’s a catch-22.

And yes, we’re going to Road America, a 4-mile road course. Daytona is 3.6. COTA, I don’t know the distance (3.41 miles), but it’s huge. Turn 11 is probably a mile and a half away, as the crow flies, from the front straightaway. So, we’ve got to look at local cautions. Those have gone away over the years. It’s now just one major caution it seems like. And it was a tough call for NASCAR to have to make but it was on the side of safety.”

Said Austin Dillon: “I think it would put an interesting fold into the race where we had to make the decision ourselves until we lose five cars in one corner because the caution didn’t come out and we couldn’t get back around to pit road to put them on.”

4. A win years in the making

Christopher Bell’s first Cup victory last week marked a significant moment for Toyota’s driver development program.

A program that has produced Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, William Byron and Daniel Suarez, among others, celebrated Bell’s win and climb up the manufacturer’s ladder last weekend at Daytona.

“Christopher’s win was extra special for Toyota,” said David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development. “We started with him 10 years ago, racing in dirt. He’s our first development driver that came all the way from dirt to winning at the highest level of North American motorsports. A big part of the reason he’s there is because of Toyota and the belief we put in him. His family does not have the resources and that’s why we invest and will continue to invest (in young drivers).”

NASCAR Cup Series O'Reilly Auto Parts 253 At Daytona
Christopher Bell after winning his first Cup race last week at Daytona. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Wilson also noted the sponsors that back Toyota’s development program and went on to say: “Christopher Bell’s win on Sunday for me justified every dollar we’ve spent, every hour we’ve spent, all the blood, sweat and tears. Jackpot. That’s all it takes. You find one Hope Diamond and all the hours of mining make it worthwhile. We had a great idea that Christopher was that kind of a talent.”

Wilson likened his pride to a parent who sees their child graduate college and get their first job.

“It’s not just a financial equation for Toyota,” Wilson said. “I don’t want to portray it that way. … What I love about our driver development program and why we will continue to do it is with partnerships (with sponsors) we’re able to help so many of these young kids, these young athletes achieve or have opportunities that they simply wouldn’t have otherwise.

“I’ve said this many times in the past to that end, how many other Kyle Busch-level talents have been out there but have never had the opportunity, never had the support, the luck to actually to realize that potential? I don’t know the answer to that. But it’s countless.”

5. A style all his own

Yes, Denny Hamlin is partners with Michael Jordan, stars in a TV commercial with its own catchphrase and has three Daytona 500 wins, among his 44 career Cup wins. But he has something else.

Kyle Larson said that Hamlin has “a very unique driving style everywhere he runs. He’s got his own style that nobody has anything close to what his throttle looks like.”

Hamlin agrees.

“I don’t think my data can be replicated,” he said. “I think that you can try, but you are probably going to be wasting your time. It’s just something that I’ve always done. It’s probably more of a habit than it is a conscious decision to drive that way.”

Hamlin won’t divulge what he does so differently but said: “My throttle application is dramatically different than everyone else.”

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NASCAR Saturday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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NASCAR drivers are scheduled to hit the track today in competitive mode for the first time in 2023.

Practice is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. on the oval inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Single-car qualifying for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum is scheduled to begin at 8:35 p.m. (ET). The 36 drivers will be divided into three 12-driver groups for practice.

Cup practice groups

Cup qualfying order

Saturday’s qualifying will set the starting lineups for Sunday’s four 25-lap heat races. The top five finishers in each heat race will advance to the main event. Two 50-lap “last chance” races will follow, and the top three finishers in each of those events will join the feature field.

The 150-lap main event is scheduled at 8 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

For the second consecutive year, the Clash is being held on a purpose-built track inside the LA Coliseum, one of sport’s iconic venues. Joey Logano won last year’s race and last year’s series championship and will be among the favorites Sunday.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Saturday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High 71.

Saturday, Feb. 4

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 2 – 11:30 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 6 – 8 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8:35 – 9:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

New NASCAR Cup season features several changes

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While NASCAR looks back in celebrating its 75th season, there’s plenty new for the sport heading into the 2023 campaign.

Driver moves and schedule changes and are among some of the big changes this year. Here’s a look at some of the changes this season in Cup:

Drivers

— Two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch has a different look, as he moves from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Tyler Reddick. 

— Tyler Reddick goes from Richard Childress Racing to 23XI Racing, taking the ride formerly occupied by Kurt Busch, who was injured in a crash last summer and has not returned to competition.

Ryan Preece goes from being a test driver and backup at Stewart-Haas Racing to taking over the No. 41 car formerly run by Cole Custer, who moves to the Xfinity Series. 

— Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson returns to Cup after running the past two seasons in the IndyCar Series. He’s now a part owner of Legacy Motor Club and will run select races for the Cup team. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500, driving the No. 84 car.

Ty Gibbs goes from Xfinity Series champion to Cup rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Noah Gragson goes from Xfinity Series title contender to Cup rookie for Legacy Motor Club (and teammate to Jimmie Johnson).

Crew chiefs

— Keith Rodden, who last was a full-time Cup crew chief in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, is back in that role for Austin Dillon at Richard Childress Racing, as Dillon seeks to make back-to-back playoff appearances. Rodden comes to RCR after working with the Motorsports Competition NASCAR strategy group at General Motors.

— Chad Johnston, who has been a crew chief for Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, will serve as crew chief for Ryan Preece at Stewart-Haas Racing.

— Blake Harris goes from being Michael McDowell’s crew chief at Front Row Motorsports to joining Hendrick Motorsports to be Alex Bowman’s crew chief. 

— Mike Kelley, who served as Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief when Stenhouse won Xfinity titles in 2011 and ’12, returns to the crew chief role with Stenhouse this season at JTG Daugherty Racing. 

Races

— What’s old is new. The All-Star Race moves to North Wilkesboro Speedway in May, marking the first Cup event at that historic track since 1996.

— July 2 marks debut of the street course race in Chicago, marking NASCAR’s first street race for its premier series.

— The spring Atlanta race and playoff Texas race have both been reduced from 500 miles to 400 miles.

Rules

Ross Chastain’s video-game move on the last lap at Martinsville will no longer be allowed, NASCAR announced this week. 

— Stage breaks are gone at the road course events for Cup races. Stage points will be awarded but there will be no caution for the end of the stage.  

— If a wheel comes off a car while on track, it is only a two-race suspension (last year it was four races) for two crew members. The crew chief is no longer suspended for the violation. 

— Cup cars have a new rear section that is intended to absorb more energy in a crash to prevent driver injuries after Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman each missed races last year because of concussion-related symptoms.

— Elton Sawyer is the new vice president of competition for NASCAR. Think of the former driver as the new sheriff in town for the sport.

Achievements 

— With a win this season, Kyle Busch will have at least one Cup victory in 19 consecutive seasons and become the all-time series leader in that category, breaking a tie with Richard Petty.

Denny Hamlin needs two wins to reach 50 career Cup victories. That would tie him with Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson for 13th on the all-time list. 

Kevin Harvick, running his final Cup season, is 10 starts away from 800 career series starts. That would make him only the 10th driver in Cup history to reach that mark.

Friday 5: Clash at Coliseum provides a reset for RFK Racing

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Mired in traffic was not where Chris Buescher expected to be. Sure, he knew that racing 22 cars on a quarter-mile track inside a stadium that has hosted the Super Bowl, Olympics and World Series would put him in tight confines, but when the green flag waved for last year’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Buescher was in traffic on the freeway.

He was headed to the airport — along with the rest of RFK Racing. 

Both Buescher and team owner Brad Keselowski failed to make last year’s feature, sending them home earlier than expected.

“A punch to the gut,” Buescher told NBC Sports.

NASCAR’s return to the Coliseum for Sunday’s Clash is not a redemption tour for RFK Racing, said Jeremy Thompson, the team’s vice president of race operations. He calls it a reset.

That’s what last year was thought to be with Keselowski leaving Team Penske to become an owner/driver of an organization that had gone more than four years without a points victory before 2022. The Clash was a chance for RFK Racing to show its new direction.

Instead, RFK Racing and Spire Motorsports were the only multi-car teams not to have a car in the feature.

“Yes, it was not a points race, but it just looked bad,” Buescher said. “And it was bad. It hurt our feelings more than anybody else’s, I promise.”

Through that disappointment, lessons were learned.

“We didn’t have a lack of hunger that was holding us back,” Keselowski said of last year’s Clash. “We had a lack of understanding our vehicle dynamics. Understanding was just not good enough on a lot of levels.

“We continue to invest in resources and people to continue to push that forward to where we can go to events like that and feel that we’re a threat to win and we’re not just trying to make the race.

“I don’t think I understood that when I came in, where we were at as a company on the vehicle dynamics side.”

It was clear immediately that Buescher and Keselowski were in trouble. Buescher was 21st on the speed chart in practice; Keselowski was 33rd of 36 cars. 

“The car bounced so bad that I thought we were going to rip the transmission right out,” Buescher said of last year’s Clash weekend. “We spent all of practice trying to make the car just drive in a circle vs. trying to make it faster. We missed … before we ever left (the shop).”

Said Thompson about last year’s Clash: “I felt like our effort going into that was exceptionally high. We left no stone unturned. We just turned over some of the wrong stones.”

Two weeks later, both Keselowski and Buescher won their qualifying races at Daytona, but there was much work to do to overcome flaws with other parts of their program.

“We’re pushing really hard on vision and values of what it takes to be a high performer at this level, whether that is getting all the details right in the shop or on the road,” Keselowski said.

RFK Racing learned from its struggles early in the season, particularly with its short track program. Buescher, who had never placed better than 16th at Phoenix at the time, finished 10th there last March, a little more than a month after the Clash. He called his top 10 that day “a small win.”

Progress continued but it was not quick. Buescher placed third at Richmond last August before winning the Bristol night race in the playoffs. Keselowski was seventh at New Hampshire last July and won the first stage at the Bristol night race in September before a flat tire ruined his chances.

Keselowski acknowledges that turning RFK Racing into a team that can contend weekly for wins will take some time, but he sees progress.

“We’re not everywhere we need to be, but we definitely have a plan to get there,” he said. “Navigating that plan is challenging, but we’re on a path.”

2. Why not more horsepower?

NASCAR will take what it learned in last week’s Phoenix test to the wind tunnel on Feb. 13. If the wind tunnel test of short track enhancements goes well, changes could be implemented before the April 2 race at Richmond.

The changes being tested in the wind tunnel are a smaller spoiler (2 inches) and some adjustments to the underbody of the car. 

Still, one suggestion drivers often make is to give them more horsepower.

“I think there’s a misconception that we could take the existing engines and just throw 200 horsepower in it,” said John Probst, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, in response to a question from NBC Sports. 

“We do have multiple-race engines today that we have to keep in mind. (More horsepower) is something that we are actively discussing, but, obviously, we don’t do that in a vacuum. We do that with the engine builders.

“But anybody that has been around, we’ve raced high horsepower and low downforce before and ended up at some point in time deciding to go away from that to get more entertaining racing. … I think we’re open to entertaining any horsepower gains that we can get with our current (engine) architecture, but anything beyond that is actually not something that can happen quickly.”

Probst later said that keeping the engines in the current horsepower range could prove helpful for any manufacturer looking to join the sport.

“One of the reasons we landed on the horsepower range we’re in now is to try to land in areas that have existing racing engines designed for them, similar to our current (manufacturers),” Probst said. “We’re not hiding from the fact that we would like to encourage some new (manufacturers) to come in. That is part of the equation for that whole thing. I’m not saying it’s the driving reason, but it is a consideration.”

3. Crossing the line

The quarter-mile oval in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will provide plenty of chances to hit bumpers, doors and other parts of the car Sunday.

But there’s a line between short track racing and racing without respect. 

For Ryan Preece, who is running his first race in the No. 41 for Stewart-Haas Racing this weekend, there is a clear divide.

“There’s certainly a way to go about it in quarter-mile racing where you can pass somebody without hitting them,” said Preece, a veteran of racing modifieds in bullrings. 

So how does he tell what’s crossing the line on a short track?

“If somebody drives into me getting into the center of the corner, they’re in control of their race car at that point,” Preece said. “So that or door slamming somebody, not even trying to make the corner, are two good examples (of not racing with respect).”

Preece relies on a lesson he learned racing modifieds with how to race in close quarters.

“I’ll never forget this, I was at Thompson (Speedway) and I used (seven-time modified champion) Mike Stefanik up pretty well into Turn 2 with probably six or seven laps to go, trying to chase down the leader. It didn’t happen. 

“I said, ‘Oh, hey man, I’m sorry. I had to do what I had to do for my team.’ He looked at me and said ‘Well, what about my team? What about the guys I race with?’ 

“I think that day really helped me understand that side of things. You want to race with as much respect as you possibly can. There’s a way to do it, a way to race somebody hard but not overstep the line.”

4. On the same page

Ty Dillon moves to Spire Motorsports this season as a teammate to Corey LaJoie.

Dillon will drive the No. 77 car, which has never finished in the top 30 in car owner points since its debut in 2019. The best the car placed was 31st in owner points in 2021.

Dillon says he has confidence in building the program based on Spire Motorsports’ approach.

“We aren’t unrealistic about where we are,” Dillon told NBC Sports.

But he also said that management has workable goals.

“We said, ‘Hey, here’s where we stand in the spectrum of the race teams,’ ” Dillon said. “Here’s our goals. Here’s what we believe we can accomplish. The structure of what everybody knows and how we’re all pulling in the same direction is a real confidence (boost).

“We know we’re not going to be the team that competes every single weekend for wins, but we’re going to be the best at who we are. Over time, people are going to say, ‘Damn, Spire has taken a step.’ … We’re long-term focused and everybody’s on the same page as that.

“I’ve been a part of a team that said, ‘Hey, we’re wanting to build something.’ Well, you get 10 races in and they haven’t won a race and they’re throwing everybody out the door.”

Dillon said the “realistic, genuine expectation” at Spire Motorsports makes this situation feel different for him.

“The hope and optimism is knowing that we’re all on the same page,” he said.

5. Rule book changes 

NASCAR announced a series of rule changes this week and stated that it would outlaw the video game move Ross Chastain made on the final lap of last year’s Martinsville race. 

NASCAR also made a number of changes to the rule book this week.

Among those:

— Intentionally damaging another car on pit road could lead a Cup driver to be penalized 25-50 points and/or 25-50 owner points and/or $50,000 – $100,000 fine. Last year, intentionally damaging another car on pit road could lead only to a fine of $25,000 – $50,000.

— Member to member confrontations with physical violence and other violent manifestations could result in a fine and/or indefinite suspension or membership revocation. Last year, such an infraction was listed as incurring a penalty of 25-50 driver and/or team owner points and/or a fine of $50,000 – $100,000. Violations also could result in a race suspension(s), indefinite suspension or termination.

— In the past, if a car could not go when it was time to make a qualifying attempt, it was put on a five-minute clock to do so. That’s changed this year. Now, the clock will be no more than one minute unless it is a safety issue. 

Also, NASCAR listed the length of each Cup race. The inaugural Chicago Street Course Race is scheduled for 100 laps.

Harrison Burton looks for progress in second year in Cup

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Harrison Burton made the first start of his NASCAR Cup Series partnership with the Wood Brothers in the bright lights of Los Angeles.

Burton and the Woods teamed last season as Burton jumped into full-time Cup racing after two full seasons (and four wins) in the Xfinity Series. Their first race was the Clash at the Coliseum, and it was a good start — Burton qualified for the feature and finished 12th on the lead lap.

Then things headed downhill. Crashes at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway left Burton with finishes of 39th and 33rd, respectively. After the first five races of the year, he had four finishes of 25th or worse.

Now, Season Two, and there are higher expectations. Much higher.

MORE: Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

“The start of last year was really, really rough,” Burton told NBC Sports. “It kind of put us in a hole. We got into the wreck in the 500 and crashed at Fontana. Things kind of stack up on you, and all of a sudden you’re buried in points and it’s hard to make it back up.

“But, at the end of the year, three of the last four weekends were big for us (three consecutive top-20 finishes). We need to build off that and try to get out of the West Coast swing and have a clean group of those races. That’s really important. We need to get our average finish up in the first four to five races and not put ourselves in a hole we can’t get out of, and then go from there.”

The Wood Brothers team typically brings strong cars to the Daytona 500, the season’s first point race. Trevor Bayne scored the team’s latest win in stock car racing’s biggest event in 2011.

“We ran well in the 500 last year until I was upside down,” Burton said. “We had a fast car and qualified well and finished third in our duel. Then in the second Daytona race we put ourselves in good position late, so we were in contention in both Daytona races. The speed was there, and the cars drove well.”

The team’s primary goal is to make the playoffs, Burton said. “And we want to be a contender,” he said. “Cup races are so hard. First, you have to contend. Having a good average finish is really important. If you average around 17th or 18th all year, you can kind of point your way into the playoffs, and doing that is on our minds for sure.”

MORE: Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

Burton looks for a strong start in Sunday’s Clash, which will present teams with a mix of the old and the new. Drivers got the experience of racing inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last year, and notes from that race will be useful, but the racing surface will be all new again.

“Every repave has a different tendency,” Burton said. “We’ll see how close it is to last time and how different. Obviously, there is experience on that track, but still it’s a completely new surface, so it’s going to be a mixture of old and new. There’s some knowledge we can build off of, but we kind of have to go into the weekend with that knowledge as tentative because we don’t know if the track is going to be different.”

Burton heads for Los Angeles with a win already under his belt this year. He and teammate Zane Smith, last year’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion, won last Friday’s International Motor Sports Association’s Michelin Pilot Challenge Series race on the Daytona International Speedway road course.

Burton drove the finishing laps in the four-hour race. He was third with about 50 minutes to go but moved in front with 22 minutes left when leader Elliott Skeer parked. Burton outran second-place Spencer Pumpelly by .688 of a second for the win.

“I thought we could run well,” Burton said. “After the test we did, we were really fast, so I was pretty excited. But apparently there is a lot of sandbagging that goes on there, so I wasn’t sure where we were. We had to have some things go right for us, and they did.”