Friday 5: How Mario Andretti sees ‘a lot of myself’ in Kyle Larson

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Few people can appreciate Kyle Larson’s remarkable season more than Mario Andretti, who knows the challenges of racing in different vehicles on different surfaces against different drivers and often ending with the same result. Winning.

“That’s his life,” Andretti told NBC Sports about Larson. “That’s what he loves. I identify with that. That’s the reason I gravitated toward him in a sense of being particularly interested in what he’s doing.

“He’s not the only one that interests me, but he just captured me in a very special way because I see a lot of myself there.”

Andretti, 81, is motorsports royalty. He’s the only driver to win a Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Formula 1 championship. He sees Larson’s passion to race and family support to do so – just as Andretti had when he raced so many different vehicles – as key elements to Larson’s success.

Larson has had a season unlike any other. Among the favorites to claim the Cup title, he’s won one of NASCAR’s crown jewels, the Coca-Cola 600, along with four other points races and the All-Star Race. He’ll look to add to his trophy case with Saturday’s playoff event at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

ChLarson’s year also includes victories in multiple major dirt racing events. He won his second consecutive Chili Bowl Nationals in January. Larson won the Knoxville Nationals, one of the most prestigious sprint car events, in August. He also won the King’s Royal sprint car race in July.

No one has won those events and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same year. This comes after a 2020 season that saw him win 46 of 97 races on dirt.

“Not that I don’t want to be just referenced as the greatest NASCAR driver of all time or the greatest sprint car driver of all time, I want to be known as somebody who could climb into all different types of cars and be great at what they do,” Larson told NBC Sports.

Andretti smiles when hears those words.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Andretti said of Larson’s quest. “It’s not just about trying. ‘OK, I’m going to give it a go.’ “(It’s) win. Win. You have got to win in somebody else’s sandbox at their own game.

“That’s what gives you the ultimate satisfaction. That’s why you do it. That’s what drives you. You need it, that type of motivation. I can see his motivation is the thought process I was giving it.”

That motivation led Larson to drive his car against the wall on the last lap of last weekend’s Southern 500 in an effort to pass Denny Hamlin for the win. It didn’t work, but the move capped the opening playoff race with one of the most exciting final laps of the season.

Larson acknowledged it was a “video game” move but when he explained it afterward, he methodically described how he couldn’t go low because Hamlin was blocking him. So Larson chose to build speed and bounce off the wall.

“Let’s call that a Hail Mary,” Andretti said. “It’s exactly what it was.”

He laughs.

“On the last lap, (Larson) figured, ‘You know what, I’m not going to crash it, but I’m really, really, really going to do something. That it’s either going to work or I’m still going to be second anyway.’ He was not going to throw away second. You could see that for sure.”

As he talks, Andretti laughs again, marveling at Larson’s last-ditch effort to win the race.

That’s what the best do. They make moves few think possible. The moves don’t always work, but when they do, they are unforgettable.

Andretti gave Larson one of the ultimate compliments in racing after Larson won the Chili Bowl in January. Andretti tweeted: “Can’t think of any present driver that’s more of a “Racer” than Kyle Larson.”

Many agree. Larson’s success in multiple forms of racing has led some to compare him to Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Tony Stewart.

“We’ve all been somewhat versatile in different situations and with different opportunities,” Andretti said. “I was feeding (off of) A.J. and Dan Gurney and people like that. Dan Gurney was winning in stock cars … Formula 1 and sports cars. ‘I want to do that.’ That’s really what motivated me.

“Somewhere along the line, I think Kyle connects with all of us that have been crossing over (to other series).”

In a way, it’s nothing new for Larson, who grew up aspiring to be a full-time driver in the World of Outlaws sprint car series. When opportunities arose in NASCAR, he took them but also looked to compete in as many dirt track races as possible.

Goodwood Festival of Speed 2021
Mario Andretti is a fan of Kyle Larson. Years ago, when asked by car owner Chip Ganassi about Larson’s dirt racing, Andretti told Ganassi how to handle it. (Photo by James Bearne/Getty Images)

Andretti has been a fan of Larson’s for some time. When Larson drove for team owner Chip Ganassi in NASCAR, Ganassi asked Andretti about Larson racing so much on dirt.

“I said, ‘Does he show up on time to drive your car?’” Andretti asked Ganassi.

“Oh yes,” Ganassi told Andretti.

“That’s all you can ask for,” Andretti said.

The point being as long as Larson was fulfilling his duties, Ganassi should let him race other cars.

“As an owner, I couldn’t blame Chip for wanting him to himself,” Andretti said. “For myself, every contract forbid me from doing anything else. I never even bothered to negotiate because I was going to do it anyway.”

With that in mind, Andretti told Ganassi one more thing.

“Don’t you dare,” Andretti said. “Don’t you dare tell Kyle not to race midgets or sprint cars.”

“OK, I hear you,” Ganassi said.

Times have changed and such things are negotiated. Car owner Rick Hendrick, who once didn’t like his drivers racing outside of NASCAR, gave his blessing for Larson to race beyond NASCAR (just as Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman also have been allowed to do this season). Larson has run the most races outside of NASCAR of his teammates.

Andretti said running all those races beyond his Cup events are beneficial to Larson’s growth.

“If you have that desire to do that crossover (to other series), you’re not giving up anything anywhere,” Andretti said. “If anything, you’re just gaining more knowledge and putting more in the bank.

“That’s the way I looked at it. Maybe I’m wrong. All I know is what I did and what worked for me. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world now looking back. I don’t think I gave up anything by doing that. If anything, I gained.”

NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at The Glen
Kyle Larson’s wins this season include the Coca-Cola 600, the NASCAR All-Star Race, the Chili Bowl Nationals and the Knoxville Nationals. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

While some compare Larson to Andretti, Foyt and Stewart, he’s not ready for such talk.

“I’m 29 years old, and I’m not anywhere close to the stuff that they’ve all accomplished,” Larson said. “At least I feel like I can hopefully track toward that someday as I’m approaching 20 more years of racing. I’d like to hopefully be in the same category as them. At least being mentioned with them right now is a huge honor.”

That’s what Stewart says of Larson.

I think it’s an honor for all of us to be compared to Kyle right now because the kid, no matter what he gets in, he’s winning in,” Stewart told NBC Sports.

“What Kyle is doing – who knows the next time we’re going to see somebody that can do what he’s doing right now? People need to enjoy and appreciate what he is able to do in a race car right now and realize that … however many races he ends up winning, it is because of sheer talent.

“He’s a unicorn. He’s a diamond in the rough. He’s something special that doesn’t come around very often.”

2. Hot car (Literally)

One of the key issues with the Next Gen car is how hot it can get for drivers.

Denny Hamlin, driving the car for the first time in this week’s Daytona test, experienced the heat in the car.

“I can’t express how hot it was,” Hamlin said. “It was really, really hot.”

Hamlin felt that heat despite having an AC unit hooked to his helmet and wearing a cool shirt under his uniform.

“It is a concern,” Hamlin said of the heat in the cars. “It’s a big, big concern. Obviously, it’s difficult because it’s the way the car is designed. The design of it having where the exhaust is all boxed in running underneath the seat. It’s hot. It’s 450 degrees down in that box. It’s super hot.

“Then you’ve got the exhaust. All the hot radiator flowing into the car from the hood. I don’t really know. I think they’re going to have to make some big changes to it, something that will allow us to finish races without having major issues. I think they made some gains with some stuff they did with Austin Dillon later in the day, hopefully.”

Chris Buescher, who took part in the test, also noted the heat in the car.

“It’s pretty warm, so we’re working on trying to cool it off,” he said during the test. “We’ve got some different hose configurations, so we’re going through those trying to alleviate some of the heat inside.”

John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president, racing innovation, said work remained on the heat in the car.

“We obviously have a list of things to work on coming out of here,” he sad. “We have to work on the heat in the car; we have some ideas there. We used the afternoon today to try some big swings at things and found some directions to go, so I feel like we made some really big gains there.

3. Committed

Richmond has a history of commitment line violations and that could play a role in Saturday’s Cup playoff race.

“I feel like people don’t realize how little you can really see out of the Cup cars,” Alex Bowman said. “You can’t really see that box unless you’re squared-up with it. Late pit calls probably play a role in that. But it’s early. It’s hard to see. And that pit road entrance is super slick. The race track is super slick. So, there are a lot of factors. But it is definitely a tough one and an easy one to miss and cause a big penalty for yourself.”

In the spring race, Kyle Busch failed to get all four tires below the orange box before he pitted on Lap 343 of the 400-lap event. He was running third at the time. The penalty dropped him to 10th. He finished eighth.

In last fall’s playoff race at Richmond, Kevin Harvick was penalized for a commitment line violation on Lap 185. He was running second before the infraction and fell to 27th after the penalty. He finished seventh.

In the 2019 spring race, Ryan Blaney was penalized for a commitment line violation on Lap 311. He was running outside the top 20 at the time. He finished 25th.

William Byron avoided a penalty in last spring’s race but he missed pit road before his final green-flag stop and had to make another lap before pitting.

“To get on pit road, I think, there are a lot of different techniques,” Byron said. “It looks like some guys just kind of ultimately just turn down early and get to pit road extremely early.

“You kind of run the risk if you stay up there on the track of not getting the car slowed down. I knew I wasn’t going to make it, pretty early on, because the car started wheel-hopping and I couldn’t get the gears to match up and decel. So yeah, it’s a risk you take.

“On our end, I think there’s going to be more of a conservative approach this race just to make sure we don’t have any issues. You’ve still got to get all you can get. But do so, and make sure you can get there. I don’t see it being a huge issue. We all kind of know what we’re up against.”

4. Pit Road Speeding

Pit road speeding penalties can play a key role in the outcome of a race, as Martin Truex Jr. experienced in last weekend’s playoff opener at Darlington Raceway.

That was the fourth pit road speeding penalty for Truex this season. Three of those penalties have cost him likely top-two finishes, if not wins.

He was the first car off pit road with less than 50 laps left last weekend at Darlington when he was caught speeding. That dropped him to 15th. He finished fourth.

“I feel like we left some on the table,” Truex said after the race.

He is 36 points above the cutline heading to Richmond.

At Richmond in the spring, Truex finished second in both stages and was running second when he was caught speeding on Lap 294 of the 400-lap race. That dropped him to 12th. He finished fifth.

Here is a list of pit road speeding penalties for full-time Cup drivers this season (playoff drivers in bold):

5 — Ross Chastain

4 — Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Anthony Alfredo, Josh Bilicki, Austin Dillon, Corey LaJoie, Daniel Suarez, Cody Ware

3 — Michael McDowell, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Newman, Bubba Wallace

2 — Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Chase Briscoe, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

1 — Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvck, Chris Buescher, Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto, Quin Houff, Ryan Preece

0 — Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones

5. Honor and Remember 

Saturday marks 20 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Cars in the Xfinity and Cup races at Richmond will have paint schemes that pay tribute to first responders and those lost in the attacks.

NBC Sports will have a feature before the Cup race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) that will include interviews with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton sharing memories of that time.

Earnhardt won at Dover in the first Cup race after the attacks. Helton was the NASCAR President in 2001. He was involved in the decision to postpone the New Hampshire race, scheduled a few days after Sept. 11, and resume the season the following week at Dover.

This week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast with Nate Ryan features the interview with Helton.

“If we do New Hampshire, it’s going to be a challenge, emotionally and physically,” Helton said. “Then everybody said ‘Let’s sleep on it and we’ll get together first thing Wednesday morning (Sept. 12, 2001).'” But by then I think everybody had resolved, ‘OK, we’re not going to do this at New Hampshire.’ … You had to figure out when that race was going to take place, if it were going to take place.

“Then you start thinking past all of that to where if we’re not going to run this weekend, when do we run again type thing.”

Listen to the full interview on the NASCAR on NBC podcast here.

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Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”