Kyle Larson

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Kyle Larson says his dirt track racing will be key to next contract

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Kyle Larson says being allowed to race on dirt tracks will play a key role in which Cup team he competes for after the 2020 season.

Larson’s contract expires after next season. While social media has put him in the No. 48 car when Jimmie Johnson completes his final full-time season next year, there is no guarantee he’ll leave Chip Ganassi Racing for Hendrick Motorsports.

“I enjoy what I’m doing with Chip right now,” Larson said Wednesday in a media session a day before the NASCAR Awards Show (8 p.m. ET Thursday on NBCSN). “Obviously I’m a free agent, I guess, at the end of the year. I guess I’m excited just to hear what people have to say.

“If I do end up with Chip I’ll be perfectly happy with that. He gave me my first shot. I’ve got a great relationship with him and the team. More than anything, I just look forward to racing race cars. I haven’t really thought too much about (what team he’ll race for after 2020). Obviously, I’ve been reading everything everybody else has too. It’s cool to see your name in the mix for stuff like that, but we also have to focus on the on-track performance next year.”

Larson is considered among of the top free agents in a loaded class that includes Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman, among many whose contracts expire after the 2020 season. Larson finished a career-high sixth in points this past season. He has made the playoffs four consecutive years. 

Larson said that Ganassi’s willingness to let him race sprint and midget cars during the NASCAR season “definitely” gives Ganassi an edge over other teams.

“Wherever I end up, that is going to be priority for me is still being able to race quite a bit on dirt tracks,” Larson said. “I think teams understand that is what I love. We’ll see. I think Chip definitely continuing to let me run and then also letting me run more than I have in the last few years has been awesome.”

Larson’s agreement with Ganassi allows Larson to run 25 dirt track races during the NASCAR season. Ganassi’s rule is that Larson can’t drive a sprint or midget car 24 hours before he is to be in a Cup car but Ganassi waived that rule in 2017, allowing Larson to run in the Knoxville Nationals the night before the Cup race at Michigan. Larson finished second in the Knoxville Nationals and won the Cup race at Michigan the next day.

An issue for Hendrick Motorsports could be Larson’s desire to race on dirt tracks. Hendrick used to allow Kasey Kahne to run on dirt tracks but then took those privileges away after an accident Kahne had. Hendrick permitted Kahne to race those cars more than two years later.

Larson also said that he is grateful to Ganassi for hiring him when others didn’t pay much attention to the rising star.

“I want to do the best job I can while I’m with Chip and if I continue to be with Chip,” Larson said. “He took me from nobody, nobody ever heard of me or even when they started to hear about me wouldn’t give me a shot. I”m very loyal and thankful for that. I would love to be with Chip for the rest of my career if I could.”

Power rankings: NASCAR driver/crew chief combinations

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NASCAR Talk continues its offseason Power Rankings, as voted on by NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers.

Today, we present our picks for the top driver/crew chief combinations in the sport.

There are a few surprises, for sure. Most notably: 2019 Cup champion Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens did not take the No. 1 spot in the rankings.

We’re asking fans to give their take on our picks (choose from Cup, Xfinity or Trucks). Do you agree or disagree – and why? Take our poll at the bottom of these rankings.

The top driver/crew chief rankings:

1. Martin Truex Jr./Cole Pearn (29 points): Among the sport’s gold standard, if not the standard other driver/crew chief pairings are measured. A series-high 23 wins have come in the last four seasons, including one championship in 2017 and back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2018 and 2019.

2. Denny Hamlin/Chris Gabehart (25 points): In his first season as a Cup crew chief, Gabehart brought a second wind to Hamlin’s career after the latter went winless in 2018. Hamlin put together his best year in almost a decade in 2019 with six wins, 19 top five and 24 top-10 finishes.

3. Kyle Busch/Adam Stevens (24 points): This is the only current driver-crew chief combo with multiple Cup titles. Stevens and Busch have been to the Championship 4 all five years they’ve been together. Sure, it wasn’t easy in the playoffs this year but they still claimed the championship.

4. Kevin Harvick/Rodney Childers (23 points): Were fast when they first got together in 2014 and have not slowed since. They have collected 26 wins in their six years together, earning the championship in 2014 and only missing the Championship 4 round once since (2016). If it wasn’t for occasional inconsistency and slumps, the No. 4 team likely would be ranked higher.

5. Christopher Bell/Jason Ratcliff (13 points): Though they will move to the Cup Series in 2020 without any Xfinity championships, they tormented the competition in the Xfinity Series the past two years, winning 15 times. Placed in the top five in 38 of 66 races.

6. Brad Keselowski/Paul Wolfe (12 points): The longest-tenured active combo in Cup at nine years. The duo has 29 wins, one championship and won three or more races in seven of those nine seasons together. The No. 2 team would have placed higher in these rankings except it has reached Championship 4 round just once (2015) since NASCAR went to an elimination playoff format in 2014.

7. Joey Logano/Todd Gordon (11 points): Did not have a strong playoffs but remained in contention for a Championship 4 spot until the penultimate race at Phoenix by grabbing stage points. The duo has 21 wins, one championship and one runner-up in seven years together. Have earned at least one win in each season they’ve been together but haven’t had more than three wins in a single season since 2015.

8. Chase Elliott/Alan Gustafson (7 points): Gustafson is underrated in his ability to build a team. After a slow start together, they’ve managed to produce back-to-back three-win seasons. Granted, the third round (finishes of 36th, 32nd and 39th) sealed Elliott’s hope of making the Championship 4, but this is a team that has laid a strong foundation.

9. William Byron/Chad Knaus (6 points): Only one of our voters selected Byron/Knaus. While this first-year pairing didn’t lead to a win for Byron, there was a tremendous amount of growth this season with five top-five and 13 top-10 finishes. Knaus’ veteran ability and patience and mentoring has paid dividends, leading to even higher expectations for this pairing in 2020.

10. Cole Custer/Mike Shiplett (5 points): After Custer earned just one win in each of his first two full-time Xfinity seasons, Shiplett provided a supercharge to Custer’s career. They earned seven wins and finished second in the championship race to Tyler Reddick in 2019. There has been no announcement whether Shiplett will follow Custer to Cup in 2020.

Others receiving votes: Ryan Newman/Scott Graves (4 points), Kyle Larson/Chad Johnston (3 points), Tyler Reddick/Randall Burnett (2 points), Matt Crafton/Carl Joiner (1 point).

Through the viewfinder: Memorable photos of 2019 season

Photo by Dustin Long
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The end of each NASCAR season provides a chance for reflection … and a time to go back and look at the many photos taken at the track. Here are some photos I took in 2019 and what made them stand out to me.

Photo: Dustin Long

If you’ve been to a race, you’ve likely seen pit crews stand in their pit box and wave to their driver as they pass by on pit road before heading to the track to begin the race (at least at races where cars are staged on pit road).

The Richard Petty Motorsports pit crew, though, waves to every vehicle that passes them on pit road. Often drivers will wave back.

“If you don’t wave at them, you actually feel bad because they’ll like make sad faces,” Martin Truex Jr. said. Above was the scene at Charlotte in May on All-Star weekend.

 

Somewhere in this photo is Kyle Larson‘s car after he won the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. Photo by Dustin Long

 

Photo by Dustin Long

After each event, one of the biggest races is for the spotter of the winning team to make it down from atop the press box to Victory Lane to celebrate with the team. Sometimes the spotter can’t make it down in time before photos begin to be taken.

Spotter Chris Lambert makes sure to get a picture with his driver, Denny Hamlin, after each win because Lambert often misses the group pictures. This photo is of them after Hamlin’s win at ISM Raceway put the No. 11 driver in the championship race.

But there is more to Lambert than being the voice that tells Hamlin “clear” or “inside” or “outside.” His first wife and infant son were killed in a car crash 20 years ago. After the tragedy, a series of seemingly unrelated events over the next few years led him to marry one of his wife’s best friends. Before each race, Lambert honors the family he has and the one had.

 

Photo: Dustin Long

The intensity on Cole Custer‘s face is striking in the moments after he finished second for the Xfinity Series championship for the second year in a row in Miami.

Custer moves up to the Cup Series in 2020, joining a talented rookie class that includes two-time Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell. This could be one of the best rookie of the year races in recent years.

 

 

The throwback schemes for the Southern 500 have made the event at Darlington Raceway even more special for many race fans. The Wood Brothers crew uniforms help the past come alive. Photo: Dustin Long

 

Photo: Dustin Long

This photo is of artwork in the Talladega Superspeedway media center celebrating 50 years of NASCAR racing at the track.

After I tweeted the photo, I was a bit surprised by the reaction from fans and their comments about the artwork. That’s one of the things I’ll remember most about this picture.

Of course, seeing some of the sport’s most famous cars on track together also was memorable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Dustin Long

Another special story on pit road in 2019 was the return of Daniel Smith, rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team.

Smith’s last event of the 2018 season was the Bristol night race before he was treated for testicular cancer. His treatment included four rounds of chemotherapy, which consisted of one week in a hospital and two weeks of recovery each time. Still, he continued to work out in the hospital.

Smith returned at Daytona in February. He remained on pit road through the Bristol night race this past season until surgery to remove lymph nodes in his lower abdomen. He returned to his job on pit road at Talladega Superspeedway in October.

 

 

Nothing else needs to be said as Mike Wheeler, crew chief for Matt DiBenedetto, stares at the damaged left front corner of the car after DiBenedetto finished second in the Bristol night race. Photo: Dustin Long

Kyle Larson continues winning streak in Arizona

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After winning three USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget series races in California, Kyle Larson continued his winning ways Saturday by capturing the feature on the opening night of the Copper Classic sprint car race at Arizona Speedway in Queen Creek, Arizona.

Christopher Bell finished second in the ASCS Southwest Region race.

The Copper Classic concludes Sunday night.

Kyle Larson wins third Turkey Night Grand Prix

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Kyle Larson became only the fourth driver in the 79 years of the Turkey Night Grand Prix to win the event at least three times, winning Friday night’s rain-delayed event at the 1/5-mile Ventura (California) Raceway.

Larson’s third win in the signature USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget race came after the event was delayed a day by rain. Larson joins Ron Shuman (eight wins), Billy Boat (three) and Christopher Bell (three) as the only drivers to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix at least three times. Larson also became the first driver to win thee consecutive USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget races in the state of California since Boat did so in 1995.

“I’ve always run well at the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Larson told USACracing.com.  “To get another one feels great. I had to work hard for that one, everybody did, just to get to the checkered flag. It was extremely rough, but fun too because it was challenging, and the ruts changed all throughout the race.”

Larson passed Cannon McIntosh for the lead with 11 laps left in the 98-lap race to win. McIntosh led a race-high 67 laps before finishing second.

Larson also won the Turkey Night Grand Prix in 2012 and ’16.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had a rough night. He flipped twice and finished 24th in the 30-car field. Tyler Courtney, the 2019 USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget champion, also flipped. He finished 18th.