Friday 5: Could NASCAR’s next great rivalry be Larson vs. Bell?

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It’s easy to want something so badly that it clouds one’s judgment.

Just the thought that Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell could develop a rich rivalry in NASCAR is intoxicating. They’re young. They’re talented. They’re with two of the best teams in the sport.

This is something that could define NASCAR’s next decade, along with Chase Elliott’s success, Kyle Busch’s quest for more titles and what the infusion of young talent brings.

Rivalries are rare in the sport these days. Consider it the curse of so many different winners each season. If you’re not racing around each other as often, the chance for conflict is not as high.

The last memorable rivalries are Brad Keselowski-Kyle Busch and Keselowski-Carl Edwards because of their acrimonious relationships on and off the track. Feud might be a better way to describe those situations.

These days, any type of rivalry is more like a spat and quickly forgotten by most.

But the last couple of races make the idea of a rivalry between Bell and Larson a juicy one, especially if they keep racing each other near the front.

Bell left Watkins Glen frustrated last weekend after contact from Larson spun him and cost him a chance to win the race.

Adding to Bell’s frustration was what happened between the two at New Hampshire in the previous race.

“It’s extremely frustrating because he cost me the race at Loudon by holding me up for 30 laps — maybe even more than that — whenever I was clearly faster than (winner Aric) Almirola at the end of the race but wasted a good majority of it trying to stay off (Larson’s) car at Loudon,” Bell told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week.

“I passed (Larson) cleanly after multiple, multiple laps of trying but being very respectful and racing for position without contact. Then fast forward one race later and we have an incident at Watkins Glen which ruins my race. I definitely did him right at Loudon, and he did not do me right at Watkins Glen. That’s that.”

Larson ran fifth and Bell was sixth from Laps 193-242 in the 293-lap race at New Hampshire. Bell went on to finish second to Almirola. Larson fell to seventh by the end.

At Watkins Glen, Larson and Bell made contact while racing for second on Lap 54 of the 90-lap event. Bell went on to finish seventh for his season-high fourth consecutive top-10 result. 

Larson, who won at Watkins Glen, apologized repeatedly after the race for the contact with Bell. Tuesday, Larson told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that “initially I thought I was completely at the wrong, but honestly, more after watching the replay, I think we both had a factor in what happened.

“I got in there. I didn’t dive-bomb him like he said I did. I was a half a car length back on him down the front stretch and was to his inside the whole braking zone — and actually was further forward than I thought I really was. I locked the brakes up late in the braking zone when I realized he was going to turn into the corner and really turned in like I wasn’t there.

“I’m not sure if his spotter didn’t tell him or what happened there. Either way, I still feel bad about it. I don’t ever want to spin anybody out, especially Christopher Bell. I’ve got a lot of respect for him on the racetrack, and we’ve had amazing races together.

“Obviously, he’s upset and I get it. After watching one of the replays, I don’t think I was fully at the wrong.”

Larson said he reached out to Bell, who did not respond immediately to the overture.

Maybe this gets resolved and both drivers move forward. Maybe it simmers. Maybe a NASCAR rivalry develops.

2. Crown jewel or not?

With Sunday’s Indianapolis Cup race (1 p.m. ET on NBC) moving to the road course for the first time, the debate is if Indy remains among the top events on the NASCAR schedule?

Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin are among those who say no.

“We lost a crown jewel,” Hamlin said. “People hated the racing. I don’t know. Are they really going to get more people out to the road course than they did for the Brickyard 400? I’m not sure. I don’t love it. I don’t love the move. It took away a crown jewel, and I don’t think anyone will consider the Indy road course any sort of crown jewel race.

“Indy is because of the oval track. That’s what makes Indy so special. I don’t think it’s the last time we’ll be back on the Brickyard on the oval.”

Kurt Busch, who has raced in the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400, sees it differently from Hamlin.

“To me, Indy will always be Indy,” Busch said. “Anytime there is an inaugural race of any sorts at a track, it is extra special. Yeah, we’ve raced there for a couple of decades on the oval, but the trophy … will be after a road course race. You have to embrace it. You have to honor it and go after it.”

Busch’s younger brother, Kyle, doesn’t have the same opinion.

“I don’t view it as Indy,” said Kyle Busch, who won the Brickyard race in 2015 and ‘16. “Indy is the oval. That’s what makes the allure of Indy, and that’s the prestige of the place and being around since (1909).”

Brad Keselowski, who won the 2018 Cup race at Indy, admits his opinion varies.

“Some days yes, some days no,” he said of if Indy is a crown jewel event with the race on the road course. “I still want to win it. Still want the trophy. There’s something special about being on the oval track.”

He also admits that “if I hadn’t won on the oval, I’d be stomping, but I’ve won on the oval.”

AJ Allmendinger, who also has run in the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400, said he doesn’t believe Sunday’s race has lost prestige.

“There are certain places that if you just say the name of the racetrack, the generic fan or maybe not even a fan of motorsports, they know what that place is,” said Allmendinger, who is entered in Sunday’s Cup race with Kaulig Racing.

“That’s what Indianapolis means to me. You can say I won at Indy … They know how big a deal that is. They may not even know what series you are talking about, but the fact that you say you’ve won there, it means something.”

3. Facing the challenges

Among the challenges for crew chief Mike Wheeler has been overseeing the first year of 23XI Racing. Each week, it can be different things beyond getting cars ready to race. This week, it has been the installation of a fire alarm in the shop.

But among the bigger issues is better performances for the No. 23 car and Bubba Wallace. As with any driver, confidence is key. Wallace acknowledges that he shows how he’s feeling. At times, that can display confidence. Other times, not so much.

As Wheeler works with Wallace for the first time, he’s learning how to help maximize Wallace’s potential and that of the team in a season where they are 21st in driver points. Wallace has five top-15 finishes in the last nine races. He has a fifth-place result (the second Pocono race with team co-owner Michael Jordan in attendance) and four 14th-place finishes in that span.

Bubba Wallace Daytona 500
Bubba Wallace heads into Sunday’s Cup race on the Indianapolis road course 21st in the points. His best finish for 23XI Racing this year is fifth at Pocono in late June. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“When it’s a little bit of a struggle, it mentally downgrades you from being confident with what you’re doing,” Wheeler said. “That’s where we’ve been. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of good showings.

“I would tell you that for all the work Bubba puts in, he hasn’t had the minor victories of top fives and top 10s and leading laps that would give him confidence to kind of keep going, work harder. It makes you frustrated that you’re (21st) in points and you’re starting mid-pack again and everything that happens to you running mid-pack can affect your finish.

“You end up getting banged up on the restarts, pit stall selection, you lack stage points because you’re starting in the back. … Definitely the mental toll is one of the challenges we’re facing for everyone on the team.

“I can tell you we’re big boys and we’re fighting through that. It’s never a thing that we don’t address. As high as expectations were, we need to make sure we have a reality check of ‘go run in the top 15, go run top 10, go run top five.’ Not just ‘go win this weekend.’

“Part of my motivational speech for a while has been that the moment it starts clicking we’ll be really fast.”

It’s just a matter of getting to that point.

4. Learning the way

The success is stunning and it is easy to forget that Ty Gibbs is 18 years old.

He’s already won three of 10 Xfinity starts this season in his first foray into NASCAR’s No. 2 series. He’ll be among the favorites for Saturday’s race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

No doubt it helps that he drives for grandfather Joe Gibbs’ team and that Ty Gibbs drives the No. 54 car — which has won eight of the last 10 Xfinity races with Gibbs, Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell having won during this recent stretch.

NASCAR Xfinity Series Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey
Ty Gibbs’ three Xfinity wins this year have come at Daytona (road course), Charlotte and Watkins Glen, all tracks rich in motorsports history. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Still, Ty Gibbs is just a teenager learning as he goes in front of an audience. The successes are easy. The disappointments are challenging. Social media is there to tell him what he did wrong and judge him.

Tony Stewart used to say how there was no playbook for drivers coming into NASCAR’s top ranks. Media training helps now but even that can fall short when drivers react in front of a camera.

Gibbs was criticized by some for comments he made after finishing fourth in the season-opening ARCA race at Daytona. He noted how that type of racing made him look forward to “racing at a real race track in Phoenix.”

Gibbs admits it has been challenging for him to navigate the landscape and make mistakes in public.

“I’ve got a bunch of buddies,” he said. “I watch them do stupid stuff, stuff that I’ve done, said negative stuff, but they don’t get anything from it, and I get blasted by the whole Internet on it. It’s hard.

“You’ve got to learn how to protect yourself, but more importantly learn how to not care about what people think. Everybody says ‘I don’t care what people think,’ but you do.”

He said he’s relied on his faith to help him in such situations and “trust God that I can’t handle this, and I’m not going to control what this guy says or what this guys says. Once you kind of handle that and learn that you’re going to have bad days and learn how to compose yourself at the end of the races, that’s the biggest thing I’ve worked on.”

It’s not easy, he admits, particularly when he doesn’t win.

“It drives me insane,” he said. “It builds a fire in me and burns week after week when I don’t win, but that’s what keeps me working hard during the week. I feel like days (after) I lose, I work harder than I’ve ever done … and it keeps going on for life.

“Trying to compose yourself in front of the whole world at 17 and 18, I feel like it’s hard for other kids my age to do it like we’ve seen. I’ve probably been the worst out of all of them. Hopefully, I’m an example and a role model in kids younger that are going to come up in the ranks.”

5. Best gift

Three years later, the gift Justin Allgaier’s JR Motorsports team gave him remains special.

They presented him with a framed picture of the entire team kissing the bricks after their Indy win in 2018. Each of the crew members signed the picture.

“You walk by the photo and look at it, I can picture every detail of postrace,” he said.

NASCAR Xfinity Series Lilly Diabetes 250
With a little prodding from Justin and Ashley Allgaier, daughter Harper Grace did kiss the bricks after Justin’s win at Indianapolis in 2018. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Among the things that stand out the most to him after winning at Indy?

“I can remember trying to figure out how to convince Harper to kiss the bricks,” he said of his daughter, who was nearly 5 at the time. “I can remember tying to get down and … how do you kiss the bricks with a hat on? There’s all these things that go through your mind.”

Also memorable from that day was the burnout he did after winning. He did it over the yard of bricks at the start/finish line, something frowned upon by the track.

“I didn’t even know I went over the bricks,” he said. “… To be honest with you I would have never have gone over the bricks. It just happened in the moment and I didn’t realize it.”

Allgaier said he got plenty of criticism (and more) from fans for doing that.

“If I think I have a lot of respect and passion for Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there are people that have more passion for the racetrack than I do, I can promise you. But if I’m lucky enough to win again this year at the road course, there will not be  a burnout over the bricks. I can assure you of that.”

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