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NASCAR wants no ‘muzzle’ on Kyle Larson’s love of dirt racing

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CHARLOTTE – NASCAR’s new president has a new policy for Kyle Larson: Speak your mind about what you love.

After the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said last month that he planned “to just keep my mouth shut” about his moonlighting in sprint cars because it angers NASCAR and its fans, Steve Phelps extended an olive branch Wednesday afternoon.

Phelps, who was announced as NASCAR’s new president last week, told reporters that stock-car racing’s major leagues need to do a better job of outreach to its grassroots tracks, the World of Outlaws and other forms of motorsports because “we can help each other.

“We may be at the pinnacle of (short-track) racing from a popularity standpoint, but we can learn from them, they can learn from us, and we can promote each other in a far better way,” Phelps said during an hourlong interview with nearly two dozen media members at NASCAR Plaza. “So this notion of NASCAR trying to muzzle Kyle Larson and his love of racing couldn’t be further from the truth.

“We want Kyle Larson to talk about NASCAR racing and dirt racing and things that are his passion. We think he can bring his fan base from other forms of racing that he’s doing to us. And we can take our fans and bring them down to that racing as well, so we all get stronger by doing something.”

In January, Larson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that winning the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals would mean more than the Daytona 500, which drew blowback on social media. During the Aug. 10-12 weekend when he commuted between Michigan International Speedway and the Knoxville Nationals in Iowa, Larson said his love of dirt racing “still made plenty of waves” within NASCAR.

Phelps said Wednesday that his industry needs to take a much less strident tone toward competing series and rebuild its bridges with feeder series and other auto racing disciplines that have proved to be avenues to NASCAR. Both Larson and rising star Christopher Bell made their names in dirt racing on the way into NASCAR, which has been reminiscent of past champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

“I totally agree that’s something we need to do, that will be part of the event promotion we’re looking at with our racetracks is if you look at the dirt event in Las Vegas, it was very successful,” Phelps said. “Kevin Harvick and I have had this conversation, he’s a champion for that whether it’s Bakersfield, or just in general what’s happening from short-track racing.

“What I would say is we need to reach out to home tracks. We need to reach out to World of Outlaws and other forms of motorsports because we can help each other. If someone is a fan of racing, we believe they can be a fan of all racing.”

Why Kyle Larson will ‘keep my mouth shut’ on Knoxville success

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BROOKLYN, Mich. – Kyle Larson likes his chances of winning Saturday’s Knoxville Nationals (“the biggest sprint car race in the world,” he says) but he’d prefer you avoid asking outside of Iowa.

Within the confines of the NASCAR garage, where Larson will be commuting from again this week to race at Knoxville, his dalliance with dirt racing has made some waves in the past.

“Oh no, it makes plenty of waves still,” the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said with a smile after practice Friday at Michigan International Speedway.

In January, Larson caused a stir when he said winning the Chili Bowl was bigger than the Daytona 500.

This week, his father, Mike, told the Des Moines Register the Knoxville Nationals is No. 1 on the bucket list. Over any race.”

So have things smoothed over enough that where there is at least a grudging acceptance in NASCAR of the Larson family’s longtime love of dirt racing?

Uh, no.

“So, I feel like I need to avoid this question before I make everybody at NASCAR mad or some of my fans mad,” Larson said. “I’ll just avoid answering that. I’ve been through this before a lot, so I’m learning more and more to just keep my mouth shut.”

He will get a few more questions about Knoxville if he wins Saturday night’s feature race, and he’s off to a great start. He won a warmup race Monday at Oskaloosa and then helped assure himself of starting third in the A main feature with an outstanding performance Wednesday in the preliminaries.

He will start third behind Brad Sweet (brother of his fiancée Katelyn) and Donny Schatz, a 10-time winner of the Knoxville Nationals.

Brad Sweet and Donny Schatz will be the two guys to beat, but I feel like we are close,” Larson said. “It’s a long race. It would be neat to win that deal.”

Last year, he finished second to Schatz after NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi relented and allowed Larson to skirt the clauses in his contract that precludes running in a sprint car race the night before a Cup event.

This year, Larson (who is permitted 25 sprint car races annually) didn’t even have to ask for permission – plans already had begun a year ago to capitalize on Larson returning to the event.

“I kind of figured at that time that it worked out good enough that I could do it,” he said. “Just very thankful that I have an owner that lets me have fun and then especially on a weekend like this go be able to participate in the biggest sprint car race in the world the night before I’m on track racing the Cup car.

“You don’t see any other owners really doing that. He knows it’s important to me and I appreciate that.”

It helped, of course, that Larson won the following day at Michigan. He will enter Sunday’s race winless this season, and his No. 42 Chevrolet seems to be lacking the gains in speed that Hendrick Motorsports’ Camaros have enjoyed recently.

“I’d like to be making as big gains as what, say, the Hendrick guys have,” he said. “But, I feel like we started off way better than they did. So, they’ve had more room to get better. But I feel like they’ve kind of surpassed us maybe a little bit the last few weeks. And there are obviously other teams that are better than we are, too.

“I feel like we’re getting our stuff better every week. We just keep getting better and there are some good tracks for us in the Playoffs. If we could just get some luck one of these times in the Playoffs maybe we can make a run at the championship. So, we’ve just got to keep working hard and thinking about what it takes to get better and better every week; which, I feel like we have the right group of people at the race track and the race shop that we can do that.”

It also helps that Chip Ganassi Racing is poised to take delivery on its own Optical Scanning Station, which is used by NASCAR for at-track inspections and helps teams optimize their cars.

Larson credits Hendrick’s turnaround to its recent acquisition of an OSS, which most big teams (such as Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Furniture Row Racing) have.

(Hendrick) finally (has been) able to learn where they can push the limits on things,” he said. “So, it sounds like maybe we have (an OSS) coming, so I’m really excited about that. Hopefully we can get it up and running before the playoffs start. We’re budget racing.”

Kyle Larson finishes 2nd at Knoxville Nationals

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Kyle Larson finished second to Donny Schatz in Saturday night’s Knoxville Nationals sprint car race. Schatz, who drives for Tony Stewart/Curb-Agajanian Racing, won the event for the 10th time. Only Steve Kinser has won the Knoxville Nationals more times at 12.

Larson qualified for Saturday night’s A-main – one of the premier events on the sprint car calendar – after winning his qualifying race Wednesday night. Larson’s status for Saturday was in question until Friday.

Larson’s agreement with car owner Chip Ganassi to run sprint car races prevents him from racing those cars a night before he is to be on track in his Monster Energy Cup car. Ganassi gave Larson permission to run the race. Larson also has a deal with Ganassi to run no more than 25 sprint car races a year.

“It’s … neat I got to race,” Larson said in the press conference after the race. “In the months leading up to this event, I planned on Wednesday night but figured I would have no shot at racing Saturday. If it wasn’t for Chip, I wouldn’t be here. I’ve got to thank him a lot.

“I hope I can convince Chip to let me do this every year.”

Larson turns his focus on winning a Cup race at Michigan International Speedway for the third consecutive time. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:16 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN.

“Hopefully, he can go win Michigan,” Schatz said after the Knoxville Nationals.

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Kyle Larson gets permission to race in Knoxville Nationals on Saturday night

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The night before he tries to defend his first career win in the NASCAR Cup Series, Kyle Larson will get the chance to win one of the biggest sprint car races of the year and his career.

Larson announced on Twitter he has received permission from Chip Ganassi Racing to compete in the main event of the 57th annual Knoxville Nationals in Iowa, which he said is the “Daytona 500 of sprint car racing.”

Larson won his A-Main race on Wednesday night, which qualified him for Saturday night’s race. It is the first time Larson has locked himself into the main event with a win. He will start ninth in the race.

“Winning the NASCAR championship this year is my main focus and my main goal but I’m also extremely happy that (owner) Chip (Ganassi) is allowing me to go back to Knoxville on Saturday and try to win a Knoxville Nationals championship as well,” Larson said. “To have the opportunity to go back and win that is very, very special to me. I can’t thank Chip enough for that.”

Ganassi himself also shared a video message on Twitter about the race.

“I’ve been hearing all of you the last few days, my phone and my Twitter account (are) blowing up,” Ganassi said. “I’ve been hearing all the comments. OK, OK, OK. We’re going to let him race at Knoxville!”

Larson said Friday at Michigan that he talked with to Ganassi about Knoxville on the way back from the reveal of Chevrolet’s 2018 Cup car.

“I didn’t know he was going to be in Detroit yesterday with us,” Larson said. “I rode back with him to the airport and we talked about it a little bit. He voiced his concerns about it, but I think more than me asking, I feel like Steve Lauletta (President, Chip Ganassi Racing) and John Olguin (Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications) at our race shop probably had the most impact probably on me being able to run, so, got to thank them, but ultimately, it’s all Chip’s decision. I know my fans really appreciate it. All my sprint car fans and NASCAR fans, so Chip is a hero today and this weekend.”

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is third in the Cup Series standings and has won the last two Michigan races.

One reason Larson had to get permission to compete in Saturday night’s race is Ganassi has contractually allowed him to compete in 25 sprint car races this year. Wednesday’s race was supposed to be the 24th race the year. Saturday’s race won’t count toward the 25-race cap.

Larson said the deal with Ganassi also restricted him from driving a sprint or midget car the night before a Cup race.

He’s made his limited races count, at one point winning six races in a row.

“I’ve never been this good in a sprint car in my career,” Larson told the the Des Moines Register Wednesday night.

The question of whether Ganassi would give the 25-year-old driver the chance to race Saturday night was immediately raised.

“I hope he understands how important this event is to me,” Larson told Speed Sport. “I’d love to race on Saturday. Obviously, I know the Cup stuff is the No. 1 priority throughout the year. But this is a big deal, and I feel really fast.

Sunday’s Cup race doesn’t start until 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

 

Rico Abreu earns way into Saturday night’s Knoxville Nationals feature

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NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Rico Abreu won Friday’s prelim feature to earn a starting spot in Saturday night’s 56th annual Knoxville Nationals at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway.

It was his first feature win at the historic half mile track.

Full results of Friday’s racing:

Saturday night’s Knoxville Nationals feature has a NASCAR flavor to it.

Daryn Pittman, who drives for Kasey Kahne Racing, will start on the pole. Donny Schatz, who drives for Tony Stewart Racing, starts fifth. Brad Sweet, who drivers for Kahne’s team, starts seventh. Shane Stewart, who drives for the team co-owned by Kyle Larson and Justin Marks, starts eighth. Abreu will start 17th.

Larson is in the B feature. He starts third. The top four finishers from that 22-lap race advance to the Knoxville Nationals feature.