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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