Analysis: Kyle Larson is in need of one more evolution


Kyle Larson has been, by a number of statistical measures, great in 2021. But can he be greater?

For as much criticism as NASCAR’s playoff format has received, the idea of a 10-race stretch to crown a champion has unearthed the need for teams to rise to the occasion in their quests for a title. This season, Denny Hamlin’s long-game plan — undeniable speed on playoff tracks — has come to the surface, as did William Byron’s efficient passing and the near-perfect restarting of Martin Truex Jr.

It’s hard to argue that the playoff format doesn’t pull brilliance out of NASCAR’s best, and for someone as good as Larson was over the course of the regular season, it’s a push past a point where it seems the driver and his team have nothing left to prove.

But as the playoff opener in Darlington demonstrated, that extra push is a necessity. Larson reverted to a “video game-style” last-ditch effort to pass Hamlin on the final lap. The bid fell short and Larson lost a race to a previously winless challenger just as productive, with as good of a strategist at his side, who, as it turns out, didn’t fret over poor summer output, instead choosing to optimize for playoff tracks.

The onus now falls on Larson to counter the ascendence of Hamlin and the rest of Joe Gibbs Racing, specifically on the 750-horsepower tracks. Since Darlington, he’s earned victories at Bristol and Charlotte’s Roval, both tracks utilizing this engine package. But he’s aware that the status quo he established during the regular season will no longer hack it; he may indeed be the odds-on title favorite but the next four weeks, and final two specifically, will be far from a cakewalk.

“When you really need to get better, you can work harder to figure out ways to do it,” Larson said. “I don’t know the specifics, but I know there was a point in the middle of the year when I think we got some things taken away from us (by NASCAR). So, we kind of fell off for a few weeks and (the No. 5 team) just had to work really hard and figure out whatever that was to get better.

“I feel like we’re back to a similar spot to where we were then.”

Larson’s assessment appears true. His rolling speed ranking is on par with its midsummer pinnacle, but there’s a vital difference. Hamlin’s speed, for the first time this season, is on equally competitive footing at the same moment:

Previously two ships passing in the night, Larson and Hamlin are similarly equipped for the home stretch of the 2021 season, which culminates on tracks where Hamlin had the fastest car in the spring.

Larson, meanwhile, ranked fourth in median lap time at Martinsville — “By far my worst track,” he assured — and fifth at Phoenix. The latter, the host of the championship race, saw a dizzying display from the 29-year-old driver. His adjusted pass efficiency was a sky-high showing, with 59.66% of his pass encounters falling in his favor, but the day was a mess by his own admission.

“I sped twice on pit road that day,” Larson said. “And then the last set of tires we put on was not good. The balance was way different and I was just kind of fighting it there. I thought we had a great car there, just bad execution on my part.”

There’s room for growth at these two pivotal tracks, inviting an idea bandied by fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott. The reigning Cup Series champion believes “You always want to grab that extra gear if you have it to pull” come playoff time.

Whether Larson, a seven-time winner to this point in 2021, has one more metaphorical gear is unclear. We’ve seen a lot of good from him already and better performance, particularly in a year with a restriction on parts development and research and development efforts, might not be possible.

Crew chief Cliff Daniels indicated in the spring that they weren’t prioritizing playoff tracks over others, contrary to what Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske had admitted. The idea behind a holistic approach to the season was to build a base to play off of for the long haul. Daniels wants his success with Larson to sustain.

“Everywhere we go with Kyle right now … is a new race for us,” Daniels said back in May. “I’ve never been to any of these places with Kyle before, so every week is a new week and the foundation of the notebook that we’re trying to build. (I’m) thankful that the year has gone the way it has, but we still have a lot of building to do.”

While the deliberate steps taken by Daniels and Hendrick bode well for Larson’s future — he signed a contract extension with the organization in July, and is locked down through 2023 — it might end up costing them this season’s championship if there wasn’t enough R&D allotment earmarked for the final two weeks, enough to suss out how to out-gun a pair of JGR drivers and competition from inside their own shop.

Perhaps Larson’s overall dominance in NASCAR is ahead of schedule, based on Hendrick’s internal expectations. Regardless, he’s in the thick of a title race that’s more crowded than what the regular season would’ve led most to believe. Hamlin is very nearly his equal. Truex’s strength is stealth but real, a spring winner at both Martinsville and Phoenix. Elliott has a chance to, again, emerge in the playoffs’ waning weeks with a top-end speed that’s been present but not always sustainable.

Larson, though, is bullish on his team becoming greater than its current stature, right in time for the upcoming string of races that matters most.

“I think we can continue to keep evolving in these next couple (weeks),” he said. “I’ve been happy with our team but there’s always room for improvement.”

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups


LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying


LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.


LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024


LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.