Kyle Larson’s hot start validates advanced stats, Hendrick’s measured path


The beginning of the 2021 NASCAR season represented validation for Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports and the idea that Larson was in dire need of a more competitive team.

Even before the incident that prompted his indefinite suspension and eventual firing from Chip Ganassi Racing, the few remaining skeptics questioned the amount of energy given to Larson, who had been deemed the most sought-after free agent in all of NASCAR prior to 2020.

Their argument was that the hype was too much; after all, he’d won just six times in 223 starts. In the eyes of those who judged drivers by observable superficial stats or comparisons to older, more experienced stable mates, the logic was sound; to some, including Kyle Busch, it never made sense that he secured a Cup Series ride before winning an Xfinity Series race.

But Larson was and still is a deep-cut analytics darling. Though winless for Turner Scott Motorsports, he led Xfinity Series regulars in pass efficiency in 2013, his rookie season. It was a trait that immediately translated to the Cup Series in 2014, when he ranked third (trailing only Jeff Gordon and fellow statistical standout AJ Allmendinger) in the same category, the youngest driver to rank third or better since advanced passing stats were initially measured by Motorsports Analytics in 2011.

Through his six full seasons driving for CGR, his star shined bright on the spreadsheets despite a lack of outward, team-dependent performance:

CGR’s organizational speed turned a corner in 2017 — Larson’s best year to date, in which he earned four victories, including his first short track win at Richmond — but proved a dubious, albeit unsurprising sign. In the 19 years since Chip Ganassi purchased into Felix Sabates’ preexisting operation, CGR teams have failed to build on any success. Its banner multi-win seasons in 2002, 2010 and 2017 were followed with winless efforts in 2003, 2011 and 2018.

Prior to Larson’s dismissal last year, his performance through the first four races highlighted the organization’s persistent failings. He’d carried the 15th-fastest car to high percentile marks in track position procurement — namely from restarts and long-run passing — heavy lifting all his own:

Crew chief Chad Johnston, most responsible for green-flag pit cycle (GFPC) offense and defense turned in abysmal early numbers, retaining Larson’s running position a mere 25% of the time (for a net loss of 41 positions) in those scenarios. CGR parted ways with Johnston after his numbers failed to improve to a tenable point for Matt Kenseth, Larson’s replacement, but the damage had been done.

Just as Johnston won once in 89 races overseeing Martin Truex Jr.’s team at Michael Waltrip Racing, he also failed to maximize results for Larson, another driver hindsight suggests should’ve fared far better.

Making that hindsight abundantly clear for Larson is the notion of having the fastest car in the series at his disposal, based on average median lap rank.

Consider the timing fortuitous, a result of the development of Hendrick Motorsports’ current cars dating back to 2019, a low point by the admission of Hendrick GM Jeff Andrews, who pointed to poor early-season performances that year as a catalyst for change.

“We weren’t happy with the way we ran at all, for example, at Las Vegas and Fontana,” Andrews told Motorsports Analytics last year. “At that point, we were still developing, I don’t want to say a ‘new car’ — we were certainly a year into it — but any time that you have a body change in a significant aero platform change with these race cars, it takes you a while.”

Key in Hendrick’s rise back to prominence was Cliff Daniels, who became Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief in August 2019. When he inherited the team from predecessor Kevin Meendering, the car ranked as the 17th fastest in the series. Before the end of the year, it placed 13th in the same ranking and fourth during the final quarters of playoff races, making Johnson’s desire for wins and a playoff spot in his final season more than wishful thinking.

Johnson pointed to Daniels’ streamlined communication efforts as the chief reason for his season’s upturn — “Communication being better (allowed) us to get to changes quicker” — but the young crew chief recognized that improved communication was needed to reestablish the foundations of what was once a championship-winning team to succeed far past Johnson’s time behind the wheel. He made it a point to understand Larson’s communicative comforts well before the driver was even fitted for a seat in a Hendrick car.

Additionally, the expediency in which Larson’s personal preferences are applied to his car is faster than Hendrick’s previous norm. Fellow Hendrick driver Chase Elliott recently noted the promotion of Chad Knaus, now the organization’s VP of Competition, has resulted in cars being delivered in a more race-ready fashion, leaving plenty of time for attention to detail.

“When a crew chief sees his car for the first time, about a week before the race, that crew chief has less work to do,” Elliott said last week. “I think Chad has had a big impact in having that car show up in a manner that that particular crew chief wants it to be in.”

Each incremental step taken by Hendrick in advance of Larson’s first start last month in Daytona has led to what we witnessed through the first six races of 2021:

He ranks as the series’ most efficient and prolific passer on non-drafting ovals, having secured a pass differential 58 positions better than his statistical expectation. He ranks first among those with double-digit attempts in preferred groove restart retention, having successfully defended his position on 86.7% of restarts from inside the top 14.

The difference between this year and previous years is that the statistically proficient Larson, a reliable track position creator for the majority of his career, has a dominant car underneath him. He scored a win in Las Vegas, produced a relentless runner-up showing — and possible statement of intent — in Atlanta and even recorded the fastest median lap time in the Daytona 500, a style of race Larson’s never won.

Larson and Hendrick was an intriguing combination from the onset. So far, it’s proving the spreadsheet signs of superstardom true while validating every step the organization took to prepare for a driver like him.

Charlotte Cup race postponed to Monday by weather


CONCORD, N.C. — All-day rain Sunday forced the postponement of the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race to Monday.

The postponement means that Charlotte Motor Speedway is scheduled to host 900 miles of stock car racing Monday. A 300-mile Xfinity Series race, originally scheduled Saturday and first postponed to noon Monday, has been rescheduled for 11 a.m. ET Monday (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The Cup race is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. (Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Sunday’s Cup race was scheduled to start at 6:21 p.m. ET, but light rain was still falling at that time in the speedway area near Charlotte. Rain intensified a few minutes later and, despite an evening forecast that showed slight improvement, officials decided at 6:30 p.m. to postpone the race.

Monday’s forecast calls for a 34% chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race and a 30% chance at the start of the Cup race.

William Byron will start the race from the pole after qualifying was washed out Saturday night.

RFK Racing gains sponsorship from submarine recruiting group


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR racing and submarines? Yes.

RFK Racing announced Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it has entered a partnership with BlueForge Alliance, which is involved in securing workers for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) program. will be a primary sponsor for RFK drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher in 10 Cup Series races this year and in 18 races per season beginning in 2024.

The sponsorship will showcase the careers related to the submarine-building program across the nation.

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“I’m proud to support a cause of such vital significance to our country with this new partnership,” Keselowski said. “The synergies between a NASCAR team and our military’s needs to stay on track fast are countless. We hope to inspire the workforce of the next generation across the country when they see RFK race and hear our message.”

The sponsorship will support the mission to recruit, hire, train, develop and retain the SIB workforce that will build the Navy’s next generation of submarines, the team said.

“We are excited and grateful to be teaming with RFK Racing to drive awareness of the thousands of steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs available across the nation. Innovation, working with purpose and service to others are hallmarks of both of our organizations,” said Kiley Wren, BlueForge chief executive. “Together, we aim to inspire NASCAR fans and all Americans to pursue career opportunities that will support our national defense.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

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Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

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And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”