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Denny Hamlin sees path back to NASCAR for Kyle Larson if he wants it

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Denny Hamlin says he sees a way for Kyle Larson to return to NASCAR provided Larson wants to do so.

Larson is without a Cup ride after Chip Ganassi Racing fired him April 14 for uttering a racial slur during an iRacing event. Larson has completed mandated sensitivity training, but he remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR. Larson apologized April 13 on social media for uttering the slur. He has not talked publicly since about any future plans.

Hamlin and Larson are friends. They flew together to Arizona ahead of the March 8 Phoenix Cup race and golfed together before that weekend. Larson is among those who has played in Hamlin’s golf league “The Golf Guys Tour.”

Asked after winning last weekend’s Pro Invitational Series if he thought Larson wanted to return to NASCAR, Hamlin said:

“I think he loves NASCAR. I think so much gets made about his love for dirt (racing). He’s got a love for dirt, there’s no question about it. I went to plenty of races with him last year on Saturdays, just some dirt races, got to watch how passionate he is about dirt.

“He also really likes Cup racing. I think if he wants to come back, there is a path for him back. He’s been doing all the right things as far as what I’ve heard.

“Obviously he put himself in a really bad spot saying something that was totally inappropriate. But, you know, people make mistakes. A lot of people make mistakes. Hopefully he’s back in Cup racing sooner than later.”

The 27-year-old Larson was in his seventh full-time season when he lost his ride. He won six Cup races at Chip Ganassi Racing and made the playoffs each of the past four seasons.

Larson returned to racing last Friday when he competed in the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Invitational at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway that was held without fans. Larson finished 10th. David Gravel won. Carson Macedo finished 14th for Larson’s team.

Larson came through dirt track racing to NASCAR and continued to race on dirt during his Cup career. His agreement with Chip Ganassi Racing allowed him to run 25 dirt track events during the NASCAR season. He won his first Chili Bowl Nationals in January.

Friday 5: iRacing gives Cup rookie feel of the real thing and more

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Strapping into a Cup car to begin a race? No problem for rookie Christopher Bell.

But competing in an iRacing event in the comfort of his home?

Well …

“For whatever reason, I get more nervous whenever I’m racing on my computer than I do in real life,” Bell told NBC Sports. “I’ll be up there sweating and death gripping the steering wheel. … Whenever you get into a real race car it’s more off of reactions and instincts. You’re just kind of along for the ride.

“But, man, for whatever reason, basically everybody I’ve talked to said the same thing. You get more nervous on the computer than you do in real life.”

Understand that Bell has been racing on a computer for a decade or so. He also helped develop iRacing’s sprint car and dirt track racing, which debuted in 2017.

Bell’s nerves will return Sunday for the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, which debuts at 1:30 p.m. ET. on FS1 and feature drivers from the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series racing at a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The multi-week Pro Invitational Series will feature Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Bell, among others.

“I’m just excited to see who all is going to participate in it,” Bell said. “It’s really cool to see how far this deal has come. It’s going to be a lot of fun to have something to race on Sunday.”

iRacing has become a haven for competitors and fans with NASCAR racing postponed through the May 3 Cup event at Dover International Speedway because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bell also is working on his World of Outlaws sprint car in his free time. He partnered with Chad Boat last year on a sprint car team and won in October at Tri-State Speedway in Haubstadt, Indiana. There’s plenty of work to do on the car.

“We had it stripped from last year,” Bell said. “Our first race wasn’t scheduled until April 16 I think. Now that everyone has got a little bit of time off, we’re just trying to get it ready. If there are some races in the foreseeable future, we’ll go do them.”

Bell admits this break seems like another offseason but the difference is that he raced this past offseason in New Zealand and the Chili Bowl.

“It’s very strange not having anything to go race,” he said. “That’s a really big advantage of having iRacing right now and being active in it. You’re able to, obviously not feel the race car itself, but you are getting every other cue, all the visuals, all the reaction time. It’s real racing and it’s a lot of fun, too.”

2. A plan to help others

The coronavirus has put nursing homes and assisted living centers throughout the country on a virtual lockdown, preventing residents from having visitors because older adults are at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

As Jon Wood, senior vice president of Wood Brothers Racing, talked this week to his mother, who oversees marketing for a pair of assisted living centers in Stuart, Virginia, the question arose of what could be done for those residents.

Wood recalled watching the MSNBC show “Lockup” that goes behind the scenes at prisons. He remembered seeing how video conferencing took place between visitors and inmates to keep them separate. Wood thought the same concept could be done at assisted living centers and nursing homes to protect older adults.

Then it became a matter of purchasing enough tablets that could be used for the video conferencing. Wood Brothers Racing donated $1,500 and Wood put out a request on social media for $10 donations through the team’s website. Donations were done through the team’s store so Wood could have the address information for each donor to send thank you notes signed by Matt DiBenedetto.

Wood set a modest goal of a few hundred dollars in donations and has been overwhelmed at the response.

As of Thursday afternoon, Wood said $31,000 in donations had been made, allowing him to purchase about 200 tablets for nursing homes and assisted living centers.

“Every little $10 donation has added up and it’s crazy how it has exploded,” Wood told NBC Sports.

Wood was at a nursing home Thursday in Stuart as a person outside the building used one of the tablets to speak to a resident inside, who was communicating on another tablet.

“I’ll be honest,” Wood said, “the whole time I was nervous, hoping it would work.”

It did.

Now he’s getting requests from other retirement homes and assisted living centers for tablets to help their residents connect to family and friends.

Wood’s work isn’t done. Donations can continue to be made on the team’s website. For every $150, another tablet will be purchased.

“There’s no reason to stop,” Wood said. “I’ve got plenty of thank you notes.”

3. Challenges ahead

NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ comment this week that the sanctioning body intends to run all the Cup races this season and wants to reschedule the postponed races before the playoffs, has some crew chiefs pondering what things could be like this summer.

Providing NASCAR returns May 9 at Martinsville, that would leave 17 weekends to run 22 races and the All-Star Race. There are only two off weekends during that stretch (July 26 and August 2).

To run all those races before the playoffs means that NASCAR will have to do some creative scheduling, whether that is additional doubleheader weekends and/or mid-week races.

What seems certain is an increased workload on teams, particularly crew members who are traveling to each race.

Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott at Hendrick Motorsports, said he’s already pondered such scenarios.

“We’ve looked at all that and that’s going to be a huge logistical challenge,” Gustafson told NBC Sports. “I don’t know what the schedule is going to be but it’s certainly going to be difficult. The first thing that kind of comes to my mind is that the road crew is basically going to be removed from assisting any preparation in the shop, especially if you are racing on Wednesdays or you are racing two races in a row or you’re going to be traveling for an extended period of time.

“They’re not going to be able to assist in the production of the cars. It’s all going to fall back on the shop and it’s going to be extremely important for those guys to be able to carry that load, which our shop has done a fabulous job this year. Logistically, it’s going to be very, very difficult. It’s going to be tough to manage that.”

For as challenging as it could be for an organization such as Hendrick Motorsports, the task will be even greater for a smaller team such as Go Fas Racing, which has about 20 employees.

Ryan Sparks, crew chief for Corey LaJoie and the No. 32 team said his team could face challenges if NASCAR does run all the postponed races before the playoffs. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“Even working ahead and being prepared, I see a lot of sleepless nights in the near future,” said Ryan Sparks, crew chief for Corey LaJoie at Go Fas Racing. “I live for it man. I could give up sleep to go racing. I’m all good for it.”

Even more responsibility will be on LaJoie to do all he can to avoid an accident. Repairing cars will only add to the team’s workload during that time.

“The biggest thing that will help us is coming out of the race weekends clean,” Sparks told NBC Sports. “Not making any mistakes on the race track and tearing up a car where we can turn it around quickly and go to the next track if needed.”

Sparks said employees are working in the shop while keeping a safe distance to prepare cars for the coming races and for what could be a busy summer of racing.

“Being small and still being able to come to work and work ahead and be prepared is key in this moment,” he said. “If they just sprung it upon us at the last minute, we would really struggle.”

Sparks said while bigger teams will put new bodies on cars to run at other tracks, that isn’t always an option for his team. 

“That’s not going to take us to the next level,” he said of all that extra work with a small crew. “It’s just going to put us further behind. As long as we have a good, solid intermediate product, that’s what we’re going to take to each intermediate track where the bigger teams have track-specific cars.”

4. Work still to do

Although some race shops are closed and NASCAR has banned testing not related to the development of the Next Gen car, there’s still work for teams.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson says he and his engineers are examining areas that can improve the performance of Chase Elliott’s cars.

Chase Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson are in their fifth Cup season working together. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“The rules this year are much more stringent than they’ve been in the past, we’re having to certify a lot of the components,” Gustafson said, referring to NASCAR’s freeze on many new parts for this season with the Next Gen car set to debut next season. “There’s not just a whole lot of places to go and find performance. I expect things to be similar when it restarts, but I think that’s certainly just an educated guess on my part.”

If so, that will be a good sign for Elliott fans. Elliott won three stages in the first four races.

But that’s not stopping Gustafson and his engineers, who are working from home, from trying to find any area to make the cars better.

“It’s very much like the offseason to me,” Gustafson said of the break in racing until at least May. “You know what you feel like you need to improve and you’re trying to mine as much as you possibly can. Then at the same time you have to be a little bit careful and say, ‘Hey I can’t get too caught up in these things because I’m assuming this is better and I don’t want to go down this road and ultimately be worse.’ It is much like a research and development phrase and you’re trying to be prepared.”

One of the advantages of working at home during this pause in the sport is it allows Gustafson to continue healing from the mountain bike accident he suffered last month while in Fontana, California for the race at Auto Club Speedway. Gustafson suffered a torn AC joint in his right shoulder and a hairline fracture in his right clavicle.

“It’s been more convenient for me to stay off of it,” he said. “Right now, I’ve just been in the phase of basically not doing a whole lot of (physical therapy). It’s just basically rebuilding the ligaments.”

5. Long, strange ride

Daniel Suarez and his girlfriend made it to California on Thursday, driving across the country to retrieve a 1963 VW double cab bus he found online and purchased.

Suarez’s first car was a VW Beetle and that has fostered a lifelong love of the make and hunt for such cars to restore.

He recently found the 1963 VW double cab bus, which he said was in good condition, having had only two owners and having been parked since 1982.

Suarez told NBC Sports that he originally joked with his girlfriend about driving out to California to get the vehicle but when she said yes, the trip was on.

Much has changed since they hit the road. When they first left North Carolina, restaurants were still serving people inside. Now, they’re only open for take out or the drive-thru lane. That has meant many meals in his truck. Suarez also said seeing cities vacant has been stunning.

“I’ve been surprised in many different places how different it is,” Suarez said. “We made this decision because we knew we were going to be safe staying away from everyone and just being in the (truck) for many hours.

“We just spent the night in Las Vegas, it was one of the most crazy things I’ve seen in my life. The whole Las Vegas is empty. It’s almost like a movie. It’s very, very incredible. We walked into a hotel and the hotel casino was empty. We got lucky that we got a room. Last night was the last night they were actually offering rooms (with Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak closing all nonessential business for 30 days to stem the spread of COVID-19). It’s extremely, extremely strange. We’ve just been trying to take care of ourselves.”

While on the trip, Suarez and his girlfriend have had a chance to visit some sites, such as Monument Valley, which is located on the Arizona and Utah border, and Horseshoe Bend in Arizona.

“I’m a big outdoor person and Julia is the same way,” Suarez said. “We’ve been talking about a road trip for like a year but with the racing schedule it’s almost impossible to do something like this without being in a hurry.

“Fortunately for us, some of the places that we have visited like Monument Valley and Horseshoe Bend, they’ve been open but they’ve been almost empty, which has been good for us because we’ve never been in those places before and we’ve been able to explore those places.”

Suarez and his girlfriend begin their journey back to North Carolina towing his VW bus today.

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Kyle Larson flips, misses finals of Australia’s biggest sprint car race

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Kyle Larson’s hope of following up last week’s Chili Bowl win with a triumph in Australia’s prestigious Grand Annual Sprint Car Classic fell far short Sunday.

Larson’s bid to race his way into the 24-car finals of the three-day race at Premier Speedway in Warrnambool, Australia, ended when he flipped (uninjured) on the opening lap of a last-chance qualifying heat race earlier in the evening.

Instead of being one of the featured drivers in the Classic’s 40-lap finale – the largest and most popular sprint car race of the year in the land down under – Larson was left to watch the event from the pits and cheer on Dyson Motorsport teammate and fellow American Carson Macedo.

Even that didn’t go very well, as Macedo flipped his own sprint car on the first lap of the Classic, resulting in a last-place finish. The highest finishing American was Cory Eliason, who ended up fourth.

Meanwhile, it was an all-Australian podium, with James McFadden winning the Classic for the second time in his career, followed by James Veal and Kerry Madsen.

In eight days, Larson went from capturing what he called the biggest win ever of his racing career on all levels – the Chili Bowl in his 13th try last Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma – to nothing but bad luck and utter frustration throughout his Australian journey.

Larson’s first race on Wednesday in the King’s Challenge at Borderline Speedway was rained out.

Then, in the first night of the Classic on Friday, Larson wrecked heavily in his first heat race, including flipping (he was uninjured). After his team repaired his car, Larson went back on the track, only to suffer a blown engine that knocked him out of contention to race in that evening’s feature event.

After not being on the schedule to race in Night 2 of the Classic on Saturday, Larson had one last chance to make Sunday’s featured championship event.

A total of 80 drivers battled it out in the B, C and D Mains for the eight remaining spots in the A Main, but Larson would end up not being one of those — as can be seen in the second line of the following tweet by his team:

Larson now returns to the United States to prepare for the Daytona 500 on February 16.

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Friday 5: As season nears, a bigger deadline looms for NASCAR

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While the Cup garage opens in two weeks at Daytona International Speedway to begin the 2020 season, a bigger deadline is looming.

It is less than 10 weeks from NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of announcing the 2021 schedule around April 1.

Phelps made it clear in November what will be key elements to the upcoming schedule.

“We’re looking at where we’re going to have the most competitive racing that we can have, where we’re going to have full grandstands, and what does that market look like, is it a new market that we can service,” Phelps said the morning of last season’s finale in Miami.

Tracks that host Cup races — now mostly owned by NASCAR — were put on notice by Phelps’ comments.

“The two things that teams need: We need butts in seats and eyeballs on the TV,” said Steve Newmark, Roush Fenway Racing president, this week.

He stated how important attendance is for teams by noting the growth at Watkins Glen International, which had its fifth consecutive sellout of grandstand seating last year.

Fans at Watkins Glen in 2019. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“When I started in 2010, we didn’t take a lot of partners to Watkins Glen,” Newmark said of sponsors. “Now you take a partner to Watkins Glen in a heartbeat. It is sold out, the energy there. I understand the capacity at Watkins Glen is not the same but it has this feeling, and I think really what we’re trying from a team perspective, from a Roush Fenway perspective, that’s the most important thing.

“I want to go to areas that embrace having the race, that people show up in the stands, that there is a lot of energy. That’s where I want to take my partners. I want them to see their brand in that type of setting.

“Some venues can do that with two races. Other venues it’s been more of a struggle. I would love to see us try these new venues. There will be an energy around that.”

Among Newmark’s suggestions of where NASCAR should consider racing at some point: “Mexico, Canada, street courses, different road courses, different short tracks, look at it all.”

Ryan Newman, who enters his second year at Roush Fenway Racing, said that NASCAR should consider running a Cup race on dirt.

“I’m not trying to bash anybody, we just can’t keep doing the same things we’ve been doing,” he said this week. “We just can’t. We’ve got to mix it up as a sport. We’re working on doing that and I know that.

NASCAR Trucks at Eldora Speedway in 2019. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“But we’ve got to mix it up and make the fans want to see something different, want to see something new. A different driver. A different venue. A different type of anything. Not just a Next Gen car, that’s a part of it. … Going dirt racing can be done with the Next Gen car. If Junior Johnson was here, he’d tell you, ‘Let’s go race dirt.’ I’m telling you.”

Only the Truck series races on dirt, competing at Eldora Speedway. Cup last raced on a dirt track Sept. 30, 1970 at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, North Carolina. Richard Petty won that race.

As the sport continues to evolve — adding a night race at Martinsville, a doubleheader weekend at Pocono, and the debut of the Next Gen car next season — the makeup of the schedule in the coming years will be among the biggest tasks for NASCAR officials.

2. A big deal

After winning the Chili Bowl for the first time in 13 attempts, Kyle Larson said moments after the triumph on the MavTV broadcast: “Its a pretty different range of emotions 365 days later. I feel like I’m going to pass out. I’m sorry NASCAR, I’m sorry Daytona, but this is the biggest (expletive) race I’ve ever won. I hope to win Daytona in a few weeks but this is bad ass.”

Larson, who lost the Chili Bowl the previous year on the last lap, later explained his comment in his press conference.

“It will be fun to watch the dirt fans and the NASCAR fans go at it and maybe get a text from (NASCAR’s Steve) O’Donnell and probably (Chip Ganassi Racing chief operating officer) Doug Duchardt,” Larson said.

“I think they understand the energy that this race brings to me and how much I want to win and have wanted to win it. Obviously, I’ve said in the past that the Chili Bowl, to me, is bigger than the Daytona 500. Obviously, it’s not just because of the size of the crowd and the purse of the Daytona 500, nothing compares with that I’ve raced in.

“On a personal level, just how close I’ve been to winning this race, I think that’s where I think this race has meant more to me. But now maybe after winning the Chili Bowl, the Daytona 500 will be that next race that’s going to mean the most to me that I want to win. It’s just been a great little run and hopefully we can turn this into some good momentum into the NASCAR season.”

Ryan Newman, who competed at the Chili Bowl Nationals for the first time, defended Larson’s excitement with winning that event.

“There’s 360 drivers, 360 teams going for one trophy. That’s spectacular,” Newman said. “I raced midgets races before where I won and there were 16 cars that entered and I felt really good about it. Going back to the Kyle Larson (comment), when there’s 360 (drivers) and you have been working … your whole life to get that trophy, it makes it special. It makes it more special than anybody who is out of his shoes to understand.”

3. Memorable win

NASCAR’s test this week on the Indy road course for the Xfinity Series will give those drivers a chance to accomplish a first — be the first Xfinity driver to win on that circuit.

Brad Keselowski after winning the 2012 Nationwide race at Indianapolis. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Brad Keselowski won the first Xfinity race at Indy (it was known as the Nationwide Series at the time) in 2012. That remains a special accomplishment.

“It sticks with you,” he told NBC Sports. “I’m proud of it. … It makes me … a little sad because I don’t get to compete in that series anymore with all the rules, it’s not feasible. So there is a little bit of sorrow I have with that question (of winning there) but it certainly was a defining moment for my career.”

Keselowski also won the final Xfinity race at Lucas Oil Raceway — where the series competed from 1982-2011 before moving to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

4. 15 and counting …

Call it a good sign for some, an omen for others or one crazy coincidence but each of the past 15 Cup champions have had an even-number car number.

The last driver to win the championship with an odd number on the car was Kurt Busch. He won the 2004 title (the inaugural Chase) driving the No. 97 car.

So, if one believes in signs, the even-number streak could be a bad sign this season for drivers with odd numbers, such as Busch (No. 1), Chase Elliott (No. 9), Denny Hamlin (No. 11) and Martin Truex Jr. (No. 19) among others.

5. NASCAR at Rolex

Kyle Busch is the only active Cup driver competing in this weekend’s Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway (coverage will be on NBC, NBCSN and NBC Gold: Track Pass), today’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge will have some additional NASCAR flavor.

MORE: A “crucial” year for Hailie Deegan’s career begins today at Daytona

MORE: Full Rolex 24 Hours coverage at MotorSportsTalk

The four-hour endurance race begins at 1:10 pm. ET (and will be streamed on the NBC Gold: Track Pass) and includes Xfinity drivers Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric. Also competing will be Hailie Deegan, who moved from Toyota’s development program to Ford’s in the offseason. She’ll spend most of her time this season running in the ARCA Series. Deegan and Briscoe will co-drive the No. 22 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Mustang GT4.

Kyle Larson scores first Chili Bowl Nationals victory

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Kyle Larson passed Christopher Bell with 17 laps left and went on to win his first Chili Bowl Nationals crown Saturday night.

Bell, vying for a record-tying fourth consecutive win in the country’s premier midget race, finished second in the 24-car field at the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Cannon McIntosh, 17 years old, finished third. NASCAR Xfinity driver Justin Allgaier placed 21st. 

A year ago, Larson lost this race on the last lap to Bell. Larson had a large enough lead late in Saturday night’s race that Bell wasn’t close enough to make a move.

“Its a pretty different range of emotions 365 days later,” Larson said on the MavTV broadcast. “I feel like I’m going to pass out.

“I’m sorry NASCAR, I’m sorry Daytona, but this is the biggest (expletive) race I’ve ever won. I hope to win Daytona in a few weeks but this is bad ass.”

Here’s how other NASCAR competitors did in the various races Saturday that led to the A main that Larson won:

Dillon Welch, Alex Bowman and J.J. Yeley each failed to advance from the B2 Main.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. failed to advance from the C1 Main.

Ryan Newman failed to advance from the D1 Main.

Chase Briscoe failed to advance from the B1 Main