Kyle Larson

Ryan: These might have been Kyle Larson’s last words in NASCAR

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Now that his NASCAR livelihood has collapsed in roughly 40 hours, it’s instructive to remember that everything started for Kyle Larson nearly as quickly as it ended.

Long before casually uttering the most dehumanizing and reprehensible of racial slurs during an iRacing stream – which sent his sponsors justifiably fleeing and subsequently caused his termination at Chip Ganassi Racing – Kyle Larson was an 18-year-old sprint car driver of limited renown when he began making trips to Indiana in May 2011 for Keith Kunz Motorsports.

Within six months, he had become the second person in history to win the Four Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway (in his first trip to the intimidating dirt half-mile) and was on the radar of every NASCAR powerhouse as a can’t-miss prospect.

“It’s crazy how quickly my life changed that year,” Larson said during a 2016 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “It felt like it took forever for me to finally get that opportunity. Once I got it, my life was changing by the day. All for great stuff. My career exploded after that.”

It’s imploded even faster than anyone could have imagined, and it now is reasonable to wonder whether Larson’s path back to a NASCAR Cup ride seems even less likely than his meteoric rise from dirt tracks to Daytona once did.

And it also seems fair to consider whether Larson, who turns 28 in July, ever truly was ready for the intense scrutiny and spotlight that accompanies racing in the major leagues.

The NASCAR media’s #BluntLarson fan club (and this author was a charter member) celebrated and encouraged the driver’s candor. There were signs that Larson was learning to use his megaphone wisely, campaigning for a larger connection to racing’s grassroots or weighing in on the debates over the quality of Cup racing.

There were other instances, though, in which red flags of indifference still signified a lack of responsibility and laissez-faire style in which he seemed to leave much of the heavy lifting with his career to team owner Chip Ganassi.

There was the poor way he admittedly treated his No. 42 team on the radio during a Martinsville race after 2017 playoff elimination. There was the playful accusation that Hendrick Motorsports was cheating (again, his words) and caused a headache for Ganassi with its engine vendor. There were the subtle reminders that NASCAR often felt no more than a 9 to 5 gig he had to work to pay the bills so he could play in the dirt.

A Darlington rain-delay joke on national TV last year about Asians and video games (“I’ll probably get in trouble for that, but I’m Asian,” Larson said. “I can say it.”) feels even more tone-deaf now.

He often came across as someone who worried too little about how his words resonated, and that was part of his appeal to fans tired of drivers who toed the line with bleached personalities. Blunt often is better.

This case, though, wasn’t about bluntness.

It was about a word that never should have resided as an option in his vernacular, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and co-host Mike Davis noted on the Dale Jr. Download podcast this week.

In his video apology Monday, Larson said he wasn’t raised this way, but he used the vile epithet so casually, it must have been ingrained at some point in his life.

It’s partly why that mea culpa rang hollow for many.

Saying sorry was absolutely necessary — but only as part of a much bigger detailing of the soul-searching steps he would take next while acknowledging the road to redemption would be difficult and long.

If Larson wants to return in Cup, it’ll take more than just NASCAR lifting an indefinite suspension for using a forbidden and inexcusable term he should have known was beyond offensive in any circumstance.

Larson’s image rehabilitation will need to go well past his genuine contrition Monday. He will need to demonstrate a real understanding of the black community and its history of civil rights struggles.

As a former Drive for Diversity entrant, no one should understand better than Larson that leveraging a platform to promote greater inclusion is a major goal in NASCAR – not just because of its quest to gain fans but also because it’s the right thing to do.

If Larson wants to race immediately, there probably is a much faster road back in the dirt. The budgets and stakes are lower, and Kyle Larson Racing offers a turnkey opportunity.

The World of Outlaws Series has extended an olive branch. So long as Larson completes sensitivity training within the next month, he can race sprint cars again on the circuit where his team already has a full-time entry.

The money that beckons there also will be decent — perhaps better than any salary he could command in NASCAR. The bottom has dropped out from the market value of Larson, who was considered the presumptive top impending free agent in Cup until Monday.

Given that driver contracts typically run three years, and that a star of his caliber still could draw mid-seven figures in a bidding war, it’s easy to conclude he cost himself at least $15 million with a few seconds of reprehensible conduct on a hot mic Sunday.

Larson lost any leverage for negotiating his biggest contract yet. While there might be a team still willing to take a flier, it probably would have to be a deep-pocketed owner who needn’t worry about finding a sponsor.

Faced with making a fraction of his Cup income over the past six years, dirt racing suddenly looks much more inviting.

Larson himself made a stir three years ago when he noted making more cash in one night of selling T-shirts to dirt fans vs. six months of merchandising sales in NASCAR.

His roots are in the dirt, and it could be enticing to race immediately while rebuilding his image rather than waiting on the sidelines while trying to claw his way back into NASCAR.

Larson is on record as saying he wants a World of Outlaws championship. The dirt racing fan base likely would welcome him back with open arms and wallets, buying up as much of his merchandise as COVID-19-battered bank accounts might allow once racing restarts around the country.

Just as quickly as he arrived, Larson suddenly could be gone and quite possibly never heard from again in NASCAR despite his boundless talent.

It would be the second-most stunning thing (ranking behind the events of this week) that ever happened to a driver known for rarely choosing his words carefully.

Kyle Larson’s holiday dirt racing schedule

Kyle Larson
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There’s no such thing as an offseason for Kyle Larson.

While other NASCAR drivers may go into racing hibernation once Champion’s Week is over, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver keeps his side gig going as he continues his passion in dirt racing.

Larson is once again in for a busy holiday season of racing and that begins Friday night when he takes part in his preliminary midget race in the Gateway Dirt Nationals.

Should he advance, the main event for the Nationals will be Saturday night.

After that, Larson will immediately fly nearly halfway around the world to New Zealand where he will again take part in the six-round United Truck Parts World Midget Series, which goes through the beginning of the new year.

Once he returns to the United States, Larson is scheduled to compete in the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But then it will be back overseas for Larson as he takes part in four nights of sprint car racing in Australia.

After all that, Larson will be back in a stock car. His first NASCAR action of the year will be in practice for the Busch Clash at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 8.

Here’s Larson’s complete schedule for the next five-plus weeks:

Dec. 20: Gateway Dirt Nationals in St. Louis, Missouri (midget)

Dec. 26: Boxing Day Bash at Western Springs Speedway in Auckland, New Zealand (midget)

Dec. 28: Baypark Speedway in Tauranga for the 40 lap Gold Cup (midget)

Dec. 30: World 30 Lap Derby at Western Springs Speedway (midget)

Jan. 1: International Midget Series 40 Lapper at Huntly Speedway (midget)

Jan. 3:  King of the Springs at Western Springs Speedway (midget)

Jan. 5: World 50 Lap Classic at Western Springs Speedway (midget)

Jan. 13 – 18: Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma (midget)

Jan. 22: President’s Cup at Avalon Raceway in Lara, Victoria, Australia (sprint)

Jan 23: King’s Challenge at Borderline Speedway in Mount Gambier, South Australia (sprint)

Jan 24-26: Grand Annual Sprint Car Classic at Premier Speedway in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia (sprint)

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Smart driving keeps Kyle Larson out of trouble on ‘nerve-racking’ restarts

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LONG POND, Pa. – Stung by a spate of recent crashes (some attributable to carelessness), Kyle Larson drove with a measure of caution Sunday.

Not that anyone would have been able to tell the way he pushed winner Denny Hamlin on the second-to-last restart at Pocono Raceway.

“My less aggressive than normal is probably still more aggressive than a lot of people’s,” Larson said with a smile after a fifth-place finish.

Starting from the rear in a backup No. 42 Chevrolet for the second consecutive week after a practice crash, his attentiveness might have been most evident on the final restart.

Hamlin got a good jump on the outside, but Larson managed to keep pace behind him in fourth. But as he began to lose the handle beside Erik Jones and slide up toward the Turn 1 wall, Larson “bailed out of the throttle to keep myself from hitting the wall.”

The move cost him a few spots, but he still finished with 38 points – 30 more than he amassed last week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he crashed his primary in practice and his backup in the race.

“It was a good day,” said Larson, who had finished 26th in the June 2 race at Pocono from damage on a restart. “It was a lot better car than I thought I was going to have. This just goes to show how good our team is now and how good our cars are. Last week I felt like we had one of the fastest cars and didn’t get to show it. Today I feel we’re one of the fastest cars.

“The past two weeks, I feel like we’ve had good speed in our backup cars, so I’ve been really happy with that. I don’t want to race backup cars, so I just have to stop crashing. I just didn’t want to do anything dumb. There were moments I was aggressive, but rather than tear up another car and cost myself points, I had to be smart.”

There were questions about whether Larson had enough fuel if the race had gone longer than two laps past the scheduled distance, but the Chip Ganassi Racing driver was more concerned about avoiding mistakes because “restarts have been scary.

“I’d have rather tried to stretch it then have some late-race restarts and risk a crash or anything,” he said. “The restarts were more nerve-racking to me than trying to save fuel. I was behind Keselowski there, and he’s the best at saving fuel in this sport. I was managing my lap time to his, so I felt like I was saving as much as I could and hopefully enough to make it.”

Larson, who is winless since September 2017, picked up six points on the playoff cutline and is ranked 14th in the standings, 37 ahead of 17th-ranked Jimmie Johnson with five races remaining in the regular season.

“If I could just race a primary car, who knows what we could do,” he said. “We just have to clean up what I’m doing in practice and in the races, and hopefully we can get a win.”

Today’s Xfinity race at Chicagoland: Start time, lineup and more

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With Christopher Bell (four wins), Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer (three apiece) combining for 10 wins in the first 15 Xfinity Series races, will the song remain the same in Saturday’s Camping World 300 race at Chicagoland Speedway?

Or will another series regular earn the win? Or what about defending NASCAR Cup champion Joey Logano, making his first Xfinity Series start of the season?

Here’s all the info for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Mauricio Rodriguez, representing Camping World, will give the command to start engines at 3:37 p.m. The green flag is scheduled for 3:46 p.m.

PRERACE: Qualifying is at 12:05 p.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 1:15 p.m. Driver introductions are at 3 p.m. The invocation will be given at 3:30 p.m. by Michael White, Chaplain of Windy City Raceway Ministries. Josh Gallagher will perform the National Anthem at 3:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 200 laps (300 miles) around the 1.5-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 45. Stage 2 ends on Lap 90.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. with Countdown to Green. The Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at 3 p.m. and also can be heard at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for afternoon thunderstorms with a high of 86 degrees and a 40% chance of rain for the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Kyle Larson won this race a year ago and was followed by Kevin Harvick and Cole Custer.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here

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Christopher Bell wins sprint feature in New Zealand; Kyle Larson second in midget race

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Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson started a tour of dirt racing in New Zealand Wednesday with midget and sprint car races at Western Springs Speedway in Auckland for the Boxing Day Bash.

Bell competed in both forms of racing and left the track with a win in the 15-lap sprint feature as a late Christmas gift to himself.

Bell won from the poll and defeated Michael Pickens and Matthew Leversedge for the win.

Results

MORE: Christopher Bell gets engaged

This is the second consecutive year Larson has visited New Zealand in the offseason to compete in midget races.

Larson finished second in the midget feature after starting on the pole.

Pickens won the 30-lap feature after starting second and leading every lap.

Bell finished fourth in the midget feature.

Results

You can watch the midget feature in the video below,

 

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