Monster Energy Cup Series

Friday 5: Kyle Larson showing strength as Cup playoffs near

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While many of his competitors relax far away from a track, Kyle Larson is using the final off weekend of the season for Cup to go racing.

Why not keep going when things are good?

Larson enters this break having finished in the top 10 in each of the last four Cup races. While Joe Gibbs Racing drivers rank 1-2-3 in points scored during that stretch, Larson is the best of the rest. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has scored 146 points to rank fourth among all drivers during the last month.

That run has helped Larson go from being in danger of falling out of a playoff spot to having a comfortable margin with two races left in the regular season. Larson will head to Darlington Raceway next weekend for the Southern 500 trailing Alex Bowman by 10 points for 10th in the standings.

The recent run of success comes as Larson and his team avoided problems.

“I feel like our race cars have gotten little bit better and any time that happens, it makes your job a little bit easier and you can be less aggressive and still get good finishes,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I would just point to our cars getting a little bit better.

“I’ve crashed enough stuff early in the year and really still recently, but I’m trying to race a little bit smarter and make moves a little bit smarter and not try to run fifth with a 10th-place car and take my 10th or even if I fall back to 11th or 12th. Just being a little  bit smarter about things.”

Larson might have had a streak of six consecutive top-10 finishes but he placed 33rd at New Hampshire in July. Larson was ninth on a restart about 80 laps from the finish when he went low to try to pass Bowman entering Turn 1. Larson was on the bottom in a three-wide situation and spun, sliding up the track and backing into the wall. His woes were compounded when he had a right rear tire go down about 40 laps later and he crashed.

Larson knows he needs to make better decisions in the car.

“I should have just stayed in line and not push the issue,” he said of that restart against Bowman. “I had a fast car.”

That’s not the only time he’s had an issue. He looks to the Pocono race in June. On the final restart, he made contact with Clint Bowyer’s car and that forced Larson’s car into the wall. Larson finished 26th after having won both stages.

“I tried to clear myself up in front of Clint and not be quite enough clear and put myself in the fence with a few laps to go,” Larson said. “I cost myself there (Pocono and New Hampshire) a combined at least 40 points. That could put us inside the top 10 in points. Those are just two deals. I’ve had other races that I’ve been overly aggressive because you have to be.”

Even so, he’ll be in a good place when the Cup series resumes at Darlington Raceway. Larson finished third in last year’s Southern 500, the second time in the last three years he’s placed third there.

“I just think our team and myself just have a good feel for worn out surfaces at intermediate tracks,” Larson said. “You look at Atlanta, we were really fast. Chicago, we were really, really fast. Homestead, we’re always good. Darlington, we’re always good. So I think we’ve got a good package for that. It just fits my driving style.”

2. Chasing the right away around Road America

While the focus this weekend at Road America (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) will be on if Austin Cindric can win his third consecutive Xfinity Series road course event, Chase Briscoe will be looking to extend his streak of top-10 finishes at a track he’s never raced.

Briscoe has scored six top-10 finishes in a row, tying Tyler Reddick and Justin Allgaier for the longest active streak in the series. 

Unlike those two, Briscoe’s only experience at the track is on a simulator.

“Road America is going to be a challenge,” said Briscoe, who won last year’s inaugural race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. “I feel like Watkins Glen is one of the easier road courses just to go to the first time. It’s not really that technical, it’s pretty easy. Then Mid-Ohio … I ran an IMSA race there and an Xfinity race there. I felt like that was the one track I would have the opportunity to run good. But the Road America deal is going to be a struggle I feel like.”

Briscoe spent time on a simulator for the 14-turn, 4.048-mile track on Aug. 14. 

“I feel like at a track that big, it’s really hard to get into a rhythm,” he said. “At Watkins Glen, there are seven corners. You go through that same corner it seems like pretty quickly. At Road America, it’s going to be another two and a half minutes it seems like until you get back around there. It’s going to be a challenge. I feel like I kind of struggle on how to pass guys on the road course. It’s just a different style of passing and setting guys up.”

How so?

“Just seems like on the oval, you can catch a slower guy and it’s so easy to go to the other groove and pass them,” Briscoe said. “On these road courses, it’s typically one groove and you catch one slow guy and you might be stuck behind him for eight corners before you get to a passing zone to pass. I don’t know if Road America is going to be bad. For example, at Mid-Ohio, once you get to Turn 5, you can’t pass until really I think Turn 10 or 11, so you’re just kind of stuck. It’s hard to kind of have patience and ride behind people and know you can’t push it in those areas.”

3. Woe is the No. 3

This was not the season Richard Childress Racing imagined for its 50th anniversary.

Heading into next weekend’s Southern 500, Austin Dillon is 23rd in points, two spots ahead of rookie teammate Daniel Hemric.

Dillon’s 34th-place finish last weekend at Bristol marked his fifth finish of 30th or worse in the last seven races.

“We’ve got to do a better job in our group of controlling our entire weekend from the time we unload off the trailer, it’s been a little bit inconsistent,” Dillon said before last weekend’s Bristol race. “But in that sense, motors are good, feel like our bodies are good. The core stuff is there, but we’re beating ourselves. That’s what’s frustrating about this year. I feel like we’ve had more speed than we had in the past but haven’t been able to execute.”

Dillon won stage 2 at Daytona in July before he and Clint Bowyer triggered an 18-car crash battling for the lead. Dillon finished 33rd. A transmission and alternator issue led to a 35th-place finish for Dillon at Kentucky. He was 32nd at New Hampshire after a right front tire went down and he hit the wall. Dillon placed 31st at Watkins Glen after struggling most of the weekend on the road course. Dillon’s Bristol finish was hampered by a tire that went down and sent him into the wall and Jimmie Johnson into the back of Dillon’s car.

Dillon admits this has been his most frustrating year in the series.

“It’s been really trying mentally,” he said. “Just beats you down because every week you have to come back to it, what’s next? What’s going to happen next?”

Most weeks, at least recently, the answer to that question has not been good for Dillon and his team.

“I just want to do so much for RCR in their 50th year, for the No. 3 and for myself,” he said. “I hate running bad. It sucks. You want to get those finishes and you see bad finishes piling up and it gets you down.”

4. Feeling comfortable

As William Byron nears his first playoff appearance, the Hendrick Motorsports driver says he feels more comfortable in his role with the team in his second season in Cup.

“This is the first time I can walk into the shop and I don’t feel like I’m on pins and needles with the guys, in terms of them just trusting me and me feeling comfortable with them to tell them what is exactly on my mind,” Byron said. “It’s the first time I can walk into the shop and feel like I can say what’s on my mind; if I’m not content or I’m not happy with something or even when things go great.”

Byron is growing into his role with guidance from crew chief Chad Knaus, who joined the team after last season. Knaus has Byron 12th in the standings with races left at Darlington and Indianapolis before the Cup playoffs begin.

“I would say Chad and I are both kind of, the two pillars of the team,” Byron said. “Chad’s job is to encourage those guys, give them the resources they need, make sure they’re staying on task and make sure they’re focused. My job is to kind of I guess cheerlead a little bit in terms of motivation but also to be honest with them and say, hey this was good, this wasn’t good, this worked well, this didn’t.”

5. Back again

While the Gander Outdoors Truck Series makes its annual visit to Canadian Tire Motorsports Park for Sunday’s playoff race, it won’t be the first time this year for ThorSport’s drivers.

Grant Enfinger, Ben Rhodes, Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter competed in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge at the road course, driving Ford Mustang GT4s. Rhodes and Enfinger shared driving duties and finished 13th. Crafton and Sauter shared driver duties and placed 14th.

With Sunday’s race the second in the three-race opening round, Enfinger, Crafton and Sauter will be looking to win to advance. Reigning series champ Brett Moffitt won last week’s race at Bristol to move on to the second round.

Cup starting lineup for Watkins Glen

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and William Byron qualified for the front row for Sunday’s Cup race at Watkins Glen International.

Elliott, the defending winner at Watkins Glen, has three poles this season and seven in his career. Kyle Busch qualified third and was followed by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. Kyle Larson qualified fifth.

All 37 cars passed inspection Sunday morning, but Ryan Blaney will move to the rear for the start for an unapproved adjustment. After passing tech, the team discovered an issue in the rear suspension area and changed the part.

Click here for starting lineup

 

 

2018 Cup Season in Review: Kevin Harvick

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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Kevin Harvick

CREW CHIEF: Rodney Childers, 34 races; Tony Gibson served as crew chief for final two races of the season following Childers’ suspension.

TEAM: Stewart-Haas Racing

POINTS: Third (Previous best: 2014 championship)

WINS: Eight (Atlanta, Las Vegas I, Phoenix I, Dover I, Kansas I, New Hampshire, Michigan II and Texas II. Career-best; previous best was five in 2014)

LAPS LED: 1,990 (Third-best behind 2,294 in 2015 and 2,137 in 2014)

TOP 5s: 23 (Tied with 2015 for career-best)

TOP 10s: 29 (Career-best; previous best was 28 in 2015)

POLES: Pole (Second-best behind eight in 2014)

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Came out of the gates strong with three wins in the first four weeks … Earned top fives and a seventh in 13 of his first 21 races … Through the second race of the playoffs (Race 28), Harvick never went two consecutive races without earning a top five … Became the first driver to qualify for the Championship 4 four times since the current knockout-style format was instituted in 2014.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Suffered crash damage three of the first 13 races to finish outside the top 30 … Numerous mistakes in the pits by both the driver and team kept Harvick from recording double-digit wins during the season. Had a five-race streak from the Charlotte Roval through Martinsville during which he failed to earn a top five … Two incumbered victories (illegal back window at Las Vegas in the spring and with the spoiler at Texas in the fall) marred his season.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2019: The new rules package will create uncertainty at the beginning of the season, but Stewart-Haas should be able to pick up where they left off in 2018 … The driver expects his team will remain just as aggressive in 2019 and will push the limits of the rules … Will redouble efforts at Pocono, Kentucky and the Charlotte Roval – the only active NASCAR tracks on which he has not yet won.

2018 Cup Season in Review: Aric Almirola

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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Kurt Busch

CREW CHIEF: Johnny Klausmeier

TEAM: Stewart-Haas Racing

POINTS: Fifth (Previous best 16th in 2014)

WINS: One (Talladega II; second career victory and first since 2014)

LAPS LED:  181 (Career-best; previous best 78 in 2012)

TOP 5s: Four (Career-best; previous best three in 2015 and 2017)

TOP 10s: 17 (Career best; previous best seven in 2014)

POLES: None

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Began season with top 15s in 14 of the first 16 races … Came within two corners of winning the Daytona 500 before getting spun out of the lead by Austin Dillon … Was never worse than 14th in the points standings during the regular season.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Entered the playoffs with only one bonus point based on a stage win at Chicagoland; added five bonus points with his Talladega win, but still trailed the eventual Championship 4 by nine or more points … Sustained crash damage in back-to-back races at the Charlotte Roval and Dover in the fall … Led 70 laps at Chicagoland before losing a lap late in the race to finish 25th … Led 42 laps at New Hampshire but failed to win and finished third.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2019: Second year with Stewart-Haas will allow Almirola to develop more chemistry with the organization. All four of his top fives came in the second half of the season and he should be able to carry that momentum forward.

Bubba Wallace, RPM extend sponsorship with World Wide Technology

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Richard Petty Motorsports and World Wide Technology (WWT) announced Thursday they will extend their partnership into 2019. The agreement includes multi-race primary sponsorship and associate sponsorship on Bubba Wallace’s No. 43 Chevrolet as well as a technological alliance.

WWT was also named the official Technology and Analytics Partner of RPM.

The number of races for which they will serve as primary sponsor and the race dates will be announced at a later date. WWT served as primary sponsor seven times in 2018 including five consecutive races from the Brickyard 400 through Dover’s fall race.

“Our partnership with WWT allows us to use our own data in a way that is most useful for us,” said Wallace in a press release. “This isn’t something that is shared, but rather data that (crew chief) Drew (Blickensderfer) and our engineers now use during the race weekend and the actual race itself.

“This season was just the beginning for WWT, and I think we are just scratching the surface of their capabilities. They are also giving us the sponsorship that we need to be better on the track – that’s something that we’re all looking forward to. They are a great company and I’m looking forward to working with WWT more in 2019.”

In 2018, WWT created a proprietary dashboard that contributed to a seven percent increase in average running position and a 10 percent increase in the average finishing position, according to the release. Utilizing this data allowed RPM to make better decisions regarding their pit stop strategies.

“In a short time, we’ve seen the immediate impact World Wide Technology can make on our race program with their big data analytics,” said Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer, Richard Petty Motorsports. “Their continued partnership will have a significant impact on the performance of our race team through data analytics, application enhancements and creation of proprietary performance focused applications.”

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