Long: Kyle Larson’s Cup title caps one of greatest seasons in U.S. racing history

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kyle Larson exudes cool and calm, but that’s not how he felt when he met with car owner Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon last year about joining Hendrick Motorsports.

After Hendrick said he wanted to have Larson drive one of his cars in 2021, the Hall of Fame team owner asked Larson what he wanted out of the potential deal.

A nervous Larson pondered how to make his request without agitating Hendrick.

“I know how Rick Hendrick feels about dirt racing,” Larson recalled thinking at the time.

Larson’s inner dialogue continued, as he tried to decide how to make his request.

“I hoping I’m not going to shoot myself in the foot right now,” Larson thought at the time.

He told Hendrick: “I’d like to race some dirt races.”

Hendrick didn’t rebuff Larson, but he needed some time.

After consulting with team executives and crew chief Cliff Daniels, Hendrick approved Larson’s request as part of their deal to put Larson in the team’s No. 5 Chevrolet this year.

And so began what has become one of the greatest seasons in U.S. motorsports history by any driver.

“I never thought racing for Hendrick Motorsports that I would get to race a single dirt race in a year, let alone as many as I have this year,” Larson said. “It’s definitely an unbelievable season on so many different levels.”

Larson’s season of major wins across multiple disciplines added the NASCAR Cup championship Sunday night at Phoenix Raceway.

He claimed the title with his 10th victory of the season (11th counting the NASCAR All-Star Race). He’s the first driver to reach double digits in Cup wins in a season since Jimmie Johnson won 10 times during his 2007 championship season. Larson’s five wins in the playoffs match Tony Stewart’s record when he won the 2011 crown.

But that’s only part of what Larson did in a year that evokes the achievements of racing icons Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt.

Larson won the Chili Bowl Nationals, the most prestigious midget car race in the country. He won the Knoxville Nationals, the premier sprint car race in the country and also won the Kings Royal, another elite event. He won the Prairie Dirt Classic dirt late model race, among the country’s top events for that series.

“In this day and age, I didn’t think it was possible … to win at the highest level against the absolute best in the World of Outlaws, midgets, late models and Cup,” Gordon told NBC Sports in Victory Lane.

For emphasis, Gordon repeated himself.

“I didn’t think that was possible for anybody to do, and he’s proven me wrong,” Gordon said.

Maybe there’s more Larson can do.

“I hope he gets the opportunity to feel what a Formula 1 car is like,” Gordon said. “I think he can get in anything.”

Larson will attend the F1 race Abu Dhabi in December, but he has a few other dirt races to run before then.

Larson’s cross-country trips with his family to dirt tracks this year often featured victory lane celebrations and endeared him to fans. When Larson climbed from his Cup car Sunday night near the start/finish line, the sellout crowd at Phoenix Raceway roared.

Kyle obviously is an incredible and special talent,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps told NBC Sports in Victory Lane. “We really haven’t seen anyone like him in decades, maybe ever, if you consider what he did here and what he’s done in dirt and other forms of motorsports all year long. He’s a wheelman.

“I think the opportunity for us to bridge the dirt community and other grassroots racing is really, really important for us. He’s going to be phenomenal champion for us.”

Among Larson’s legion of fans are Stewart and Andretti.

Stewart tweeted his congratulations Sunday night, calling Larson the “best race car driver I’ve ever seen.”

Andretti, the only driver to win an Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and Formula 1 championship, told NBC Sports before the playoffs started that Larson “just captured me in a very special way because I see a lot of myself there.”

In a video played for Larson on NBC before the race, Andretti praised Larson’s versatility in winning on a variety of different NASCAR tracks and noted that “on the way to the (NASCAR) track on Saturday night, he’ll win on some dirt track somewhere.

“He’s amazing, and let’s see if he can finish it off with a championship.”

Larson was in position to do so until his car’s handling started to fade. With 50 laps to go, he was last among the four championship drivers.

His race changed when a caution on Lap 283 for debris brought the leaders to pit road. Larson entered fourth and exited in the lead.

But this wasn’t a position many thought he would be in leading up to this race.

NBC Sports analyst Dale Jarrett, a former champion, noted that despite Larson’s success this season, he wasn’t the overwhelming favorite to win the title.

“A lot of people didn’t choose him (to win) this weekend because they said he had never been in this position before,” Jarrett said, noting Larson’s first time in the Cup title race. “He might not have the mindset. There was never a doubt in my mind. If he didn’t win it, it wasn’t because he didn’t have that ability to get it done in the biggest moment.”

Some chose Martin Truex Jr. to win because he won at Phoenix earlier this year. Others saw Chase Elliott repeating. And there were those who thought this was the year Denny Hamlin would win his first championship.

That’s who Larson faced when the green waved for the final time. He had Hamlin on his inside, Truex behind him and Elliott on the inside of the second row.

“The greats – and when I say it, I think, that’s a very small percentage – they know how, in the toughest moments, when the heat is on, how to rise up and pull something off that others aren’t capable,” Gordon said.

“You have the guys that are in the position, but they make a mistake. I feel like he actually gets better in those moments. You saw him in those closing moments. Truex put so much pressure on him and he never cracked.”

While the pit crew’s work was key to give Larson the lead, the adjustments Daniels orchestrated helped keep the No. 5 in front. Daniels credited all the dirt racing Larson did this season.

“I know Mr. (Hendrick) talked about earlier that having him not race (as many dirt events) during the playoffs was a little bit of a safety factor for us, but honestly I was kind of worried for the opposite, because he raced all season long during the week,” Daniels said.

“We were Turn 3 at Pocono away from winning five weekends in row, it would have been the fourth points race but five weekends in a row  and he was racing two or three nights a week then.I was getting so much information from him about himself, like he was up front every night, and if he got beat by somebody on a restart, he would tell me what he did wrong.

And it would help me learn what he needed to look for out of himself and out of the car, whether dirt or pavement or any series moving forward. So that information to me was really invaluable because I don’t know how else I would have gotten it.”

All that information went into Daniels’ final pit call of the season.

Then it was up to Larson.

For now, he’ll enjoy what he’s accomplished this year with his NASCAR title and wins across various disciplines.

“I understand the season that we’ve had,” Larson said, ”but I don’t think you really can appreciate it until you hear of other generations talking — that are younger than me talking about a season like I’ve had.

I think I’m just a very lucky guy who gets to race in the best race cars of all the series that I get to run in. I’m in the best seat in the Cup Series. I’m in the best seat in a sprint car. I’m in the best seat in a late model. I’m in the best seat in a midget, whether it be with Chad Boat or my old car.

I think it takes a lot of hard work to get those opportunities and a lot of hard work to take advantage of it. But without good people around you and being able to be in good race cars, I would never get to have a season like I’ve had.”

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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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

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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.

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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

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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.