LEBANON, Tenn. — Whether he’s saving fuel, defending a lead or managing his car, Kyle Larson has displayed a calmness during his recent win streak.
Sunday at Nashville Superspeedway proved another test for this season’s winningest Cup driver, once known for not always winning when he dominated an event.
His biggest challenge Sunday came not from the competition but from circumstances he couldn’t control: Cautions and trash.
After pitting on Lap 219 under caution, Larson was told he was six laps short of fuel. A caution soon after cut that total to three laps short.
Crew chief Cliff Daniels’ instructions were to build the lead and they’d address fuel conservation. As Larson led, trash landed on his front grille. The engine temperatures began to rise. He closed on a lapped car and the trash blew off, preventing the temperatures from climbing dangerously high.
“There was paper and plastic flying all over the track all day long,” Larson said. “There was a few times throughout the race where I got trash in the grille, would have to tuck up (to another car), get it off. Thankfully it never landed in a spot where my temps rose quickly. They just slowly rose.
“That last time it got to where it was starting to get too hot, was able to get it off quick. Was a little bit stressed out then. But I was saving (fuel), could pay attention through my mirror (and) still realize I was still pulling away.”
Larson pulling away has been a familiar sight for foes the last few weeks.
“I don’t think anybody can beat the 5 right now,” Kevin Harvick said of Larson.
No one in Cup has for more than a month.
At the NASCAR All-Star Race, Larson started the final 10-lap round in the second row behind Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and William Byron. Larson pushed Elliott into the lead. Larson passed Elliott as Brad Keselowski slipped by both on the inside. Moments later, Larson passed Keselowski on the outside
“It feels like running second to the Hendrick cars right now is an accomplishment,” Keselowski said after that race. “They are just stupid fast. I had him off Turn 4, but they just have so much speed. He just motored right back by me, like damn!”
At Sonoma, Larson and Elliott started on the front row for the overtime restart. Larson was the leader and held off Elliott through the first couple of corners and pulled away for the win.
At Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600, Larson led 327 laps — including the final 94 — to win that event.
The recent stretch is a change from earlier this season when Larson lost chances to win races. It’s not inconceivable to think he could have won eight of the first 17 points races instead of four.
“At times, yeah, I can catch myself thinking about it,” Larson said. “There’s definitely been a few that have slipped away.”
Most notably Kansas, Atlanta and the Daytona road course this season.
Larson led about half the race at Kansas in May but lost the lead on the next-to-last restart. On the final restart, he tried to push Ryan Blaney into the lead to make a move. Instead, he made contact with Blaney’s and hit the wall. Larson finished 19th. That race marked the 15th time in his career he had led at least 100 laps in a Cup race. He won only three of those races.
Larson led 269 of 325 laps at Atlanta in March, but Blaney passed him with nine laps to go and won the race.
Larson had just moved into second at the Daytona road course — and was on what proved to be the winning tire strategy — when he hit the tire barriers and finished 30th in February.
“I think you learn from all of those times that you didn’t win,” Larson said. “Yeah, I mean, there was a lot that I learned from at Atlanta that I’m sure without even really knowing that I’m doing it that I put into my driving that has made me better to win races here lately.
“Kansas was another one I could have won. I feel like there’s been a couple times now where I’ve been in the second row of being the guy pushing, restarting. I’ve done a better job of not screwing that up. You learn from every time that you don’t win.”
What’s happened to JGR?
After Martin Truex Jr. completed his dominating win May 9 at Darlington Raceway, a tidal wave of momentum has carried Hendrick Motorsports to five consecutive victories (six if you count the NASCAR All-Star Race).
In the points races since Darlington, Hendrick cars have led 89.8% of the 1,246 laps run. Joe Gibbs Racing cars have led 4.2% of those laps.
Hendrick cars have combined for an average finish of 7.4 in that span compared the JGR’s average finish of 16.9.
Denny Hamlin said before Sunday’s race at Nashville Superspeedway that they were “off a ways for sure” on speed compared to the Chevrolet based on practice there. Kyle Busch said a day before the race: “Flat out we suck. (Sunday) is going to be a rough day.”
The top Toyota at Nashville was Christopher Bell, who finished ninth.
Truex says it has been difficult to catch up even with Cup teams having practice at three of the last four points races (teams will have practice in only three of the remaining 19 race weekends).
“Aside from Sonoma, it’s been a bit of a struggle,” Truex said at Nashville Superspeedway. “At the same time, it’s really hard to try a lot of things to find a lot of things. You look at (last weekend’s) 50-minute practice. It’s not a whole lot of time. We are running out of time just trying to change things before tech.
“The trying stuff is really difficult to do without potentially throwing away a whole weekend. We’re trying our best. Sometimes you hit it, sometimes you miss it. That’s kind of the way it goes. As a company, we obviously know we need to find more speed, and I know we’re always working on that.”
Hamlin remains confident that JGR will challenge Hendrick more this season.
“We are going to get better,” he said. “We always play the game to try to get better at the right time, so I’m not worried. Again, there is a panic button. I’m not really there yet. Frustrated, yeah, because you want to go to the racetrack and know that you’ve got a car capable of being the fastest, but again, we’ve got a few weeks to really start looking at that and say okay, we really have to catch up here.”
Kaulig Racing’s purchase of two charters for the 2022 Cup season potentially changes the market.
Taking two could leave one potential buyer out in what seems to be a crowded field. Charters are valuable because they guarantee a starting spot in each race and their payment plan far exceeds what a non-chartered team can earn.
Kaulig Racing President Chris Rice did much of the work to acquire charters from Spire Motorsports. He wonders how many more charters will be available.
“If people sell charters, I’m going to be awfully surprised,” Rice said. “I’ll be honest with you. It’s very hard. If they do, that’s good. There may be one or two that’s left out there or maybe three. … I don’t know who’s left, who would be willing to be able to let other owners come in.”
This much is known:
Trackhouse Racing, which is co-owned by Justin Marks and Pitbull, is leasing a charter for this season and does not have a charter for next year.
23XI Racing, co-owned by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan, seeks to expand to two cars and is looking for a charter.
GMS Racing announced this week that it will field a Cup team next year but has not stated if it will be a full-time or part-time effort.
Marks said he’s confident he’ll acquire a charter. If he can’t?
“We’re going to race no matter what because we’re all too passionate and too invested and too focused on the opportunity in front of us for Trackhouse — 100% we’re racing next year,” he said Saturday at Nashville Superspeedway.
Hamlin said last month at Charlotte that he wasn’t sure how much he wanted to invest in a charter with the agreement for the charter system only through 2024.
Hamlin said Saturday at Nashville that he didn’t think Kaulig’s deal changed the market much. He said 23XI Racing would “entertain” running a second car without a charter.
“A lot depends on what we see the charter future going,” Hamlin said. “The model still requires you to put significant sponsor dollars on the car if you want to compete. If you just want to ride around, then that’s a whole different business model. If you want to compete, it still requires you to get eight-figure plus, plus, plus sponsor money in order to compete with the guys that have businesses that can put their thumb on you at any time.”
Hamlin said he has timeline on when he would like to have the charter matter settled but declined to reveal that date.
“I think if I put all of the pieces together before the charter – and they all come together nicely, then I don’t think that I absolutely, positively have to have one,” he said. “I think we are in a little bit of a bubble, so there are many people with their hand on the panic button, but theirs is much closer than mine is to it.”
Car owner Rick Hendrick’s business hendrickcars.com has sponsored Kyle Larson in 10 on the first 17 races, as companies took a wait-and-see approach on if to sponsor Larson after he was suspended last season by NASCAR for uttering a racial slur during an online event.
Sunday marked the first race for Valvoline on Larson’s car this season. The company is scheduled to be the primary sponsor for Larson Aug. 28 at Daytona in the regular season finale and Sept. 18 at Bristol in the playoffs.
Valvoline CEO Sam Mitchell said he felt confident in sponsoring Larson’s car after talking with Hendrick.
“It was enough for me and based on my conversation with Mr. Hendrick, because I know Hendrick Motorsports and Hendrick Automotive Group and everything Rick does is really consistent with how we want to run Valvoline,” Mitchell told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan. “It’s a people-first organization. I knew Mr. Hendrick had spent quite a bit of time with Kyle, and when he said, Kyle’s a fine young man, he’s learned. And we’re excited to have him on the team, I felt the same way.
“Now from a marketing perspective, you wonder how is the media going to respond or the general public. That part was a question mark. So from a marketing perspective, we were a little bit more cautious and waited to see how Kyle responded to the media. How he handled it early in the season. … When we listened to his interviews, we could tell he was a changed man, and he was ready to move forward.
“So the marketing team fully supported that, and we’re excited to be associated with Kyle.”
Hendrick said Larson’s success is gaining attention from other companies.
“We’ve had a lot of interest,” Hendrick said after Larson’s win. “It’s growing every day. We want to wait for the right deal. We don’t want to take a piecemeal deal because I think it’s worth more to me than to do that. But it’s tremendous interest in Kyle. A lot of companies are telling me they appreciate me giving him the chance. Some of them are ready to spend some money, just not enough.”