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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Matt DiBenedetto wins NASCAR Truck race at Talladega

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Matt DiBenedetto won Saturday’s 250-mile NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway on a day pockmarked by numerous accidents, including a major one at the finish.

As the field swept to the finish line in overtime, a multi-car crash developed as Corey Heim lost control of his truck in the trioval. Several trucks crashed approaching the finish as the caution flag flew.

NASCAR officials studied video of the final lap to determine that DiBenedetto was in front when the caution lights were turned on, although Bret Holmes appeared to beat him to the finish line by inches. When caution lights appear, the field is frozen at that point, so any position changes after the caution are irrelevant.

MORE: TalladeTalladega Truck results

MORE: Talladega Truck driver points

The last lap was the only one led by DiBenedetto, who has been racing in NASCAR national series since 2009 but scored his first win.

Following DiBenedetto, a non-playoff driver, at the finish were Ben Rhodes, Holmes, Ryan Preece and Christian Eckes.

With one race remaining in the Round of 8, Ty Majeski has locked in a spot in the final four at Phoenix. Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Rhodes are above the cutline. Below the line are Stewart Friesen, Eckes, John Hunter Nemechek and Grant Enfinger.

MORE: Denny Hamlin says NASCAR needs leadership changes

A string of accidents left only two playoff drivers — Eckes and Rhodes — in the top 10 with 10 laps remaining.

Carson Hocevar dropped out of the lead group with five laps to go when he lost a tire, prompting a caution flag and pushing the race into overtime.

The race was marred by a fiery crash in the early going as Jordan Anderson‘s truck exploded in flames while running in the top five in a tight draft.

Anderson steered the truck to the inside as flames fired up on both sides of the vehicle. The truck crashed into the inside wall even as Anderson climbed from the driver-side window. He was transported to an area hospital.

On Lap 35, Lawless Alan hit the wall hard after his right front tire blew. He was evaluated and released from the infield medical center.

Another dangerous situation developed on Lap 63 as numerous trucks pitted at the same time under green. As Hailie Deegan attempted to stop in her pit, one of the crew members lost control of a tire, and it rolled into traffic and onto the grass area separating pit road from the track. A Deegan crew member chased down the tire in the grass and later was ejected from the track by NASCAR officials for a safety violation.

On Lap 79, Enfinger’s truck blew a tire and slammed the wall, starting a crash that collected Tanner Gray, Johnny Sauter and Austin Wayne Self.

Stage 1 winner: John Hunter Nemechek

Stage 2 winner: Chandler Smith

Who had a good race: Matt DiBenedetto had been waiting a very long time for this winning moment. … Alabama driver Bret Holmes almost won in front of the home crowd. He finished third.

Who had a bad race: Jordan Anderson had one of the most frightening crashes of the season, bailing out of his flaming truck after it caught fire in the middle of a pack of drafting trucks. … Playoff drivers John Hunter Nemechek (finished 24th) and Grant Enfinger (29th) had rough outings.

Next: The Truck Series is off for three weeks before racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway Oct. 22. The series’ final race is scheduled Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.

 

Denny Hamlin calls out NASCAR leadership for Next Gen concerns

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Denny Hamlin cites “bad leadership” from NASCAR for creating a car that he says needs to be redesigned after two drivers have suffered concussion-like symptoms in crashes this year.

Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have been most outspoken about the safety of the car this year. Chase Elliott spoke up Saturday about how “disappointed” he is “that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in.” 

Hamlin said other drivers must join them in being heard.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.

NASCAR had not offered a response to Hamlin’s comments as of Saturday afternoon.

Driver frustrations with the Next Gen car continue to grow, as Alex Bowman became the second driver to be forced to miss at least a race for concussion-like symptoms. 

Bowman crashed last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway and experienced headaches and other symptoms of a concussion earlier this week, according to Hendrick Motorsports President Jeff Andrews. 

Bowman went to a doctor on Thursday and the team announced that day Bowman would not race Sunday. No timetable for his return has been announced. Noah Gragson will drive Bowman’s car Sunday.

Kurt Busch, who drives for Hamlin’s 23XI Racing, continues to be out because of a head injury he suffered after he crashed July 23 at Pocono Raceway. Busch said this week that he is “hopeful” of racing this season.

Hamlin unleashed a torrent of criticisms Saturday about the car and series officials for an issue he said drivers brought up more than a year ago.

Asked how the sport got to this point with the car, Hamlin said: “Bad leadership.”

Asked how to avoid the same thing from happening, Hamlin said: “New leadership.”

As for the changes that need to be made in NASCAR leadership, Hamlin said: “I don’t know. You can start at the top and work your way down.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on the rear clip and rear bumper of the car. That’s an improvement that could be made to the car for next season. A complaint about the car is how stiff the rear is and how rear-end impacts have felt more violent to drivers this season. The crash test is the first since a full car crash test last December. 

For Hamlin, the rear is only a start to what needs to be done to the car.

“The car needs to be redesigned,” Hamlin said. “It needs a full redesign. It can still be called Next Gen, but it needs to be redesigned.

“It needs to be redesigned everywhere. Front, middle, rear, competition, the whole thing needs to be redesigned. We’ve got a tough Martinsville race coming up. It’s going to be tough. This thing is just going to get exposed about how bad it races. That’s just a part of it. Competition and safety, we’d like to have it all better, but certainly we just took a step back in safety and competition this year.”

Hamlin also knows it’s too late for a redesign for next year.

“If I were to run this and say, ‘All right, we’re going to have a new car,’ we’d already be done with testing right now for next year’s car,” Hamlin said. “We haven’t even begun. We’re just way too behind. This whole sport is behind.”

But Hamlin said it was “feasible” for NASCAR to do a redesign of the car.

“It’s just (that) NASCAR has to concede that they’re not capable and let the teams do it,” he said.

That’s not likely. NASCAR has a contract with the suppliers of each part and those deals, while they can be broken under certain circumstances, are multi-year deals. 

Hamlin said drivers brought up concerns about the car last year. There had been concerns about the car and how hard the impact felt after William Byron’s crash in testing at Auto Club Speedway in March 2020.

“We actually, as the drivers, didn’t do that docu-series last year because we didn’t feel comfortable with this Next Gen car and the lack of the safety testing that had been done before they started announcing that they were going to run it,” Hamlin said. “We threw up red flags over a year ago and they just didn’t respond. They just kept pushing this car has got to be on the track at all cost. At all cost.”

In an interview last month, John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of Racing Innovation, told NBC Sports that he feels one misunderstanding with the car is the collaboration between NASCAR, teams and manufacturers.

“I think that sometimes when you read the driver quotes and the team feedback, crew chiefs are posting things on Twitter, it creates the sense of NASCAR vs. them vs. the world,” Probst said. 

“Really, it isn’t like that. I wish people could see how well we actually do work with the engineers on these teams, sorting through the problems.

“I feel like we work hand-in-hand with them, but a lot of times when it gets to the public eye, for whatever reason, or if it’s in the heat of the moment, it comes across as though ‘NASCAR is making us do this,’ or ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’ but I think, in reality, that is so far from the truth.”

Jordan Anderson in fiery crash in Talladega Truck race

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NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Jordan Anderson was airlifted to an area hospital after being involved in a fiery crash during Saturday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Anderson’s car caught fire in the middle of a pack of drafting trucks. Flames burst from three areas around the truck as Anderson tried to slow the vehicle and move onto the track apron. The truck hit the inside wall. Anderson climbed from the vehicle in a cloud of smoke as it came to a stop.

Anderson, 31 and a resident of Forest Acres, S.C., was transported to the infield medical center before being airlifted. NASCAR confirmed Anderson’s trip to the hospital.

Fox Sports reported that a team member said Anderson had burns.

Anderson is a part-time driver in the Truck Series. He has a top finish of 14th this season.

Starting lineup for Talladega Cup race: Christopher Bell wins pole

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Six playoff drivers will start in the top 10 for Sunday’s 500-mile NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Christopher Bell won the pole for the race Saturday with a speed of 180.591 miles per hour. He was followed by Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Chase Briscoe.

MORE: Talladega Cup starting lineup

MORE: Talladega Cup qualifying results

Playoff drivers starting in the top 10 are Bell, Larson, Hamlin, Briscoe, Ross Chastain (sixth) and William Byron (ninth).

Noah Gragson, who qualified seventh, is replacing Alex Bowman, who is sitting out the race with concussion-like symptoms.

Ryan Blaney, starting 19th, is the lowest playoff driver on the starting grid.