Sarah Sanders

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Friday 5: Can Kyle Larson break out of his slump at Talladega?

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Two years ago, Kevin Harvick called Kyle Larson “the best driver to come into this sport since Jeff Gordon.”

Harvick remains bullish on Larson even though the 26-year-old enters this weekend on a 55-race winless drought.

Few drivers could have used last weekend’s break more than Larson — he said at Richmond it has been “a pretty crappy start to the year” — but can he turn things around starting at Talladega Superspeedway?

Larson’s struggles were discussed by Kevin Harvick and co-host Matt Yocum on “Happy Hours” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. Yocum asked Harvick how he kept himself mentally up when things aren’t going well.

Harvick responded by raising questions about Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston.

“I think when you look at (Larson’s) environment, I look at his crew chief,” Harvick said. “I don’t think he’s the most positive guy in the world. When you have a driver that is in a slump, I don’t think it’s going to come from his crew chief. I think Chad is a pretty low-key guy that kind of complains a fair amount.

“I think as you look at that, I don’t know if it’s going to come from his crew chief. I think it will have to come from (car owner) Chip Ganassi or somebody outside of what they do, crew chief to driver. (Larson is) still really young, so he needs some guidance and he needs some help to get through the situations that he’s in. In the end, when his contract is up, I don’t know exactly when that is, but he’s going to be a hot commodity.”

Johnston has been Larson’s crew chief since 2016. Johnston came to Chip Ganassi Racing after he was Tony Stewart’s crew chief in 2014-15. Those were Harvick’s first two seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Larson has scored all five of his Cup victories with Johnston as his crew chief.

Harvick said on his show of Larson: “The bottom line is Kyle Larson is a very, very talented driver that can win a lot of races with the right people around him and the right guidance from somebody kind of helping him finish races and helping him understand when things are good or if things are bad, if you’re running fifth, you need to finish fifth. Having those people around him would in the right environment, the right chemistry and the right things to go with it are really going to help him along in his career.”

It has been a tough start of the season for Larson, who has not finished better than sixth. He led 142 laps at Atlanta but saw his chances to win fade when he was penalized for speeding. Larson finished 12th that day.

Chevrolet’s struggles also haven’t helped Larson or teammate Kurt Busch. Joe Gibbs Racing has won six races for Toyota, and Team Penske has won three races for Ford this season. They’re the only two organizations to win in the first quarter of the season. Chevrolet teams have combined to win four races in the last 45 races, going back to last year’s Daytona 500.

Ganassi noted this week on Twitter the challenges Chevrolet teams face.

Larson’s task doesn’t get easier this weekend. He has five top-10 finishes in 21 Cup starts at Talladega and Daytona. Larson has never finished better than sixth at either track. After finishing 11th at Talladega in the playoffs last year, Larson lamented: “We just had a terrible race car and were really slow all weekend.”

Will the new package this weekend change Larson’s fortune?

2. What to expect this weekend?

Depends on who you ask? Drivers have different takes on what might happen.

There are many questions because of a few changes. Tapered spacers have replaced restrictor plates. Teams are getting about 100 more horsepower, meaning engines will top 500 horsepower.

To offset that speed gain and slow the cars, NASCAR raised the rear spoiler an inch to 9 inches. NASCAR also is mandating a 1-inch bolt-on track bar mount to change the height from 11 to 12 inches, raising the rear of the car by an inch.

“Handling should not be an issue at all, I’m pretty confident in that,” said Joey Logano, who has won three of the last seven Talladega races, including last spring’s event. “It was (before). You could tell some cars were better than others.

“Now, I think the field will be more equally matched. It’s already the great equalizer, and now we’re equalizing it even more. I would assume the pack will be tighter, cars will be closer, more aggressive moves, probably closer blocks. Maybe the runs happen quicker because the hole in the air is bigger. Maybe the runs on the leader will be bigger.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a tandem (draft). That can happen. I don’t know if it will or not. You would think with a spoiler that big there is a good chance of that. We’ll see.”

Paul Menard is among those who question how long tandem drafting — which was prominent about a decade ago — can work, if at all.

“The big restriction with tandem racing is cooling,” he said. “Our radiators and things aren’t made, the spec radiators don’t have the cooling we had a few years ago when we did the tandem. I think you will see people get to people’s bumpers and push as long as they can.”

There are other questions as well

“I am wondering how the side draft will work,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won this race in 2017 for his first career Cup victory. “How you can get different runs on cars and ultimately what you can do when you are out front to maintain the lead. That is what our speedway racing has turned into, get to the top five and if you are in the top two of each lane, bottom or top, how do you stay there. I think a lot of people have it figured out now, but now that the package is going to change. Is that still going to be something easy or capable of doing?”

Practice should be interesting today but even that will not provide all the answers. Those will come Sunday.

3. Memorable moment 10 years ago

The end of the April 26, 2009 race at Talladega will remain one that is replayed with one car flying into the fence on the last lap, a new Cup winner being crowned and the driver whose car flipped running across the finish line to complete a race his car couldn’t.

Brad Keselowski celebrated that day, driving for car owner James Finch in a part-time ride that saw Keselowski drive the No. 09 car five times that season. Keselowski was running full time in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports and did seven Cup races for Hendrick Motorsports in a fifth car teams were allowed to run with a rookie driver.

Keselowski’s future, though, wasn’t with Hendrick Motorsports. The team didn’t have an opening with its four-car team filled by Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin. That lineup would remain intact through the 2011 season.

In October 2009, Keselowski signed with Team Penske. That came less than a month after Martin inked an extension through the 2011 season with Hendrick Motorsports.

Keselowski’s Talladega victory a decade ago was the first of 29 in Cup for him. Six of those 29 victories have come at the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega. He’s won five times at Talladega and once at Daytona.

How different might things have been for Keselowski had he not won that race at Talladega in 2009?

“I’d like to think that it opened some doors for me,” Keselowski said. “It’s hard to say because none of us have complete control over our destiny, but when I look out the window, I’m not sure I would have ended up at Penske if I hadn’t won that race. 

“It was a major marker. It opened up, in my mind at least, but I can’t speak for Roger (Penske) or Discount Tire. It opened up the window for me to get the Discount Tire deal, which I needed to really feel good about driving for Team Penske because that opened up the Xfinity Series for me, opened up the team development side that I thought was going to be so critical to our success and to kind of get Penske on its feet. 

“If you recall, they were in a bad place at the time, and I don’t know if that would have happened without winning that race. Maybe it would have. I don’t know. It’s a better question for Roger and Discount Tire, but either way, I’m glad it happened. I’m thankful and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

4. Working together again?

One of the fascinating elements from the Daytona 500 was how Toyota and Hendrick Motorsports worked so well together to offset the dominance of Fords.

NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan revealed the inside story of that deal after the race.

The question is will such a union be needed this weekend to combat the Fords or will the rules help others gets to the front?

Keep an eye on how this plays out this weekend.

5. White House visit 

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced during a briefing Thursday that reigning Cup champion Joey Logano would be honored at the White House next week, continuing a tradition of Cup champions visiting the President.

Logano and members of his team are scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump at 3:30 p.m. ET Tuesday on the South Lawn at the White House.

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