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Kyle Larson says his dirt track racing will be key to next contract

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Kyle Larson says being allowed to race on dirt tracks will play a key role in which Cup team he competes for after the 2020 season.

Larson’s contract expires after next season. While social media has put him in the No. 48 car when Jimmie Johnson completes his final full-time season next year, there is no guarantee he’ll leave Chip Ganassi Racing for Hendrick Motorsports.

“I enjoy what I’m doing with Chip right now,” Larson said Wednesday in a media session a day before the NASCAR Awards Show (8 p.m. ET Thursday on NBCSN). “Obviously I’m a free agent, I guess, at the end of the year. I guess I’m excited just to hear what people have to say.

“If I do end up with Chip I’ll be perfectly happy with that. He gave me my first shot. I’ve got a great relationship with him and the team. More than anything, I just look forward to racing race cars. I haven’t really thought too much about (what team he’ll race for after 2020). Obviously, I’ve been reading everything everybody else has too. It’s cool to see your name in the mix for stuff like that, but we also have to focus on the on-track performance next year.”

Larson is considered among of the top free agents in a loaded class that includes Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman, among many whose contracts expire after the 2020 season. Larson finished a career-high sixth in points this past season. He has made the playoffs four consecutive years. 

Larson said that Ganassi’s willingness to let him race sprint and midget cars during the NASCAR season “definitely” gives Ganassi an edge over other teams.

“Wherever I end up, that is going to be priority for me is still being able to race quite a bit on dirt tracks,” Larson said. “I think teams understand that is what I love. We’ll see. I think Chip definitely continuing to let me run and then also letting me run more than I have in the last few years has been awesome.”

Larson’s agreement with Ganassi allows Larson to run 25 dirt track races during the NASCAR season. Ganassi’s rule is that Larson can’t drive a sprint or midget car 24 hours before he is to be in a Cup car but Ganassi waived that rule in 2017, allowing Larson to run in the Knoxville Nationals the night before the Cup race at Michigan. Larson finished second in the Knoxville Nationals and won the Cup race at Michigan the next day.

An issue for Hendrick Motorsports could be Larson’s desire to race on dirt tracks. Hendrick used to allow Kasey Kahne to run on dirt tracks but then took those privileges away after an accident Kahne had. Hendrick permitted Kahne to race those cars more than two years later.

Larson also said that he is grateful to Ganassi for hiring him when others didn’t pay much attention to the rising star.

“I want to do the best job I can while I’m with Chip and if I continue to be with Chip,” Larson said. “He took me from nobody, nobody ever heard of me or even when they started to hear about me wouldn’t give me a shot. I”m very loyal and thankful for that. I would love to be with Chip for the rest of my career if I could.”

Who will take over for Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 car in 2021?

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CONCORD, N.C. — How does one replace an icon in a sport? And with whom?

Car owner Rick Hendrick faces those questions with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s announcement that the 2020 season will be his last as a full-time Cup driver.

Hendrick was ready with a response during Thursday’s media session with Johnson at the Hendrick Motorsports complex.

“I’ve already picked a guy,” Hendrick said before a dramatic pause.

“Jeff Gordon is coming back.”

Everyone laughed.

But the reality remains, the No. 48 car — the most successful car in the 2000s — is open for 2021. As for Hendrick’s plans in finding a driver?

“We’ve got another year,” he said, turning the conversation to getting Johnson a record eighth championship.

The No. 48 car’s opening likely will create a frenzy among free agents and drivers with contracts that give them the chance to opt out of deals. While the car is winless in its last 95 races and Hendrick’s last title came in 2016, the organization remains among the best in the sport and such an opening is a rare opportunity for any driver.

So who could be that driver?

Hendrick has trended toward hiring younger drivers in the last 15 years. Five of his nine hires in that time featured drivers age 24 or under at the beginning of their first season with the organization.

Brian Vickers was 20 when the 2004 season began. Kyle Busch was 19 at the start of the 2005 season. Chase Elliott was 20 at the beginning of the 2016 campaign. William Byron was 20 at the start of the 2018 season, and Alex Bowman was 24 when he began that year.

One of the benefits for Hendrick is that he already has a sponsor in Ally, which recently signed an extension through the 2023 season. Unlike other teams where driver hires might be made based on how much sponsorship a driver can bring, Hendrick has time and leverage in making this selection.

“They’re really very supportive and wide open to what happens,” said Gordon, co-owner of the car, about Ally. “So ’21 definitely things are going to change. So we’ve got to evaluate and look at what type of driver is going to suit that car.”

The driver social media already has in the No. 48 car in 2021 is Kyle Larson. He has acknowledged having a contract through the 2020 season and has professed a loyalty to Chip Ganassi Racing, his home for his entire Cup career. Larson would be 28 years entering the 2021 season. One concern for Hendrick might be Larson’s dirt track racing. Hendrick used to allow Kasey Kahne to do that and changed his mind after Kahne escaped a flip one night.

There are other drivers to consider.

Erik Jones signed a one-year extension with Joe Gibbs Racing to go through the 2020 season. Jones will be 24 by the time the 2021 season starts. That would mark the start of his fifth Cup season. He’s already made the playoffs the past two years and will be among those expected to make the playoffs in 2020. His playoff luck, though, has been awful. Accidents marred his 2018 playoffs and mechanical issues, including his car failing post-race inspection led to his early exit in this year’s playoffs.

Matt DiBenedetto also has a contract only for the 2020 season. He joins the Wood Brothers, replacing Paul Menard, for the upcoming year. DiBenedetto has earned the respect of many for how he’s climbed the ranks, often with poor equipment. He’s turned that into better rides and nearly won the Bristol night race before Denny Hamlin passed him late in the event. DiBenedetto will be 29 entering the 2021 season. That would be his seventh full-time Cup season.

Of course, if Hendrick wanted to change things up, there could be other options.

Brad Keselowski once drove for JR Motorsports and ran nine Cup races for Hendrick Motorsports early in his career. In 2009, with no room for Keselowski at Hendrick for a full-time ride, Keselowski made plans to move to Team Penske the following season. Hendrick told The Associated Press in 2009 of Keselowski: “Wherever he goes, he’ll always be close enough for me to get him and bring him back.” Whether that remains possible remains to be seen. Keselowski signed a multi-year contract extension in July 2017. The 2012 Cup champion will turn 37 shortly before the 2021 Daytona 500.

Another driver move that could be enticing would be Chase Elliott’s close friend, Ryan Blaney, joining him at Hendrick Motorsports in 2021. Blaney, who has made the playoffs each of the past three years, is settled in at Team Penske, signing a multi-year contract extension in July 27. But what does Blaney say of some hopes of some fans? He told NBC Sports: “That’s what they say, that’s not something I’ve really thought about at all.” Blaney would be 27 entering the 2021 campaign.

Other possible candidates could include Ross Chastain, Justin Haley, John Hunter Nemechek, Corey LaJoie and JR Motorsports drivers Daniel Hemric and Noah Gragson, should they have a breakout season. 

Chastain will be 28 entering the 2021 season. He has proven spectacular in the Xfinity and Truck series and could be the type of racer Hendrick appreciates. Chastain’s teammate at Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series is Haley, who would be 21 at the start of the 2021 season. Haley finished third in the Truck playoffs in 2018 and placed 12th in the Xfinity playoffs this year. He also won the rain-shortened Daytona Cup race in July.

LaJoie will be 29 entering the 2021 season and has done a lot with the equipment he has. Bowman showed that someone who starts out in less-than-stellar equipment can win races for Hendrick. Could LaJoie be that type of candidate?

Nemechek will be 23 going into the 2021 season. His plans for next year have yet to be announced with GMS Racing announcing it will not return in the Xfinity Series. Nemechek showed well in the final three Cup races for Front Row Motorsports for Matt Tifft and that could be a spot for him next year. Gragson, who will be 22 entering the 2021 campaign, completed his rookie Xfinity season this year for JR Motorsports. He went winless but had nine top-five and 22 top-10 finishes. Hemric will be 29 when the 2021 season begins. The key for him is he needs to win.

Of course, many things will change before Hendrick Motorsports is ready to announce Johnson’s successor. Whenever that day is.

But, no, it won’t be Jeff Gordon.

Daniel McFadin and Nate Ryan contributed to this report

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How many drivers have won Cup races since Jimmie Johnson’s last victory?

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When the NASCAR Cup Series returns to Dover International Raceway this weekend to begin the second round of the playoffs, several statistics stand out.

Among them:

* This will be the 100th Cup race held at the 1-mile oval since it opened in 1969 (and the 50th since it switched from asphalt to concrete in 1995). As of Sunday, the Monster Mile will be just the 10th track in the nation to have hosted 100 or more NASCAR Cup Series events.

Jimmie Johnson‘s most recent Cup win came June 4, 2017 at Dover. (Photo: Getty Images.)

* With 11 wins there in his Cup career – the most he’s earned at any NASCAR track – seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson is the all-time winningest Cup driver at Dover. However, following his 83rd and most recent Cup career win there on June 4, 2017, Johnson has failed to return to victory lane at any track since.

* While no one needs to remind Johnson of the length and scope of his career-long winless streak — it is now at 88 races — 19 different drivers have won a Cup race since Johnson’s last visit to victory lane, according to Racing Insights.

Here’s the full list (and how many wins each driver has since June 2017):

Kyle Busch 17
Martin Truex Jr. 16
Kevin Harvick 13
Brad Keselowski 7
Denny Hamlin 6
Chase Elliott 6
Joey Logano 5
Kyle Larson 3
Ryan Blaney 2
Kurt Busch 2
Erik Jones 2
Clint Bowyer 2
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 1
Austin Dillon 1
Aric Almirola 1
Alex Bowman 1
Kasey Kahne 1
Matt Kenseth 1
Justin Haley 1

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Recent history kind to first-time winners in Brickyard 400

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Then there was one.

The Cup Series regular season comes to an end this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC).

The 160-lap race on the 2.5-mile track is the last opportunity for drivers to lock themselves into the 16-spot playoff field via a win or points.

Making the task even more daunting is that after Sunday’s Southern 500, there are only two spots left to fight over.

What are the chances a driver who hasn’t clinched a playoff spot yet can earn their first win of the year at the Brickyard?

Based on recent history, they’re decent.

In 25 runnings of the Brickyard 400, only four times has a driver earned their first win of the year in the race.

However, three of those four occurrences have happened in the last eight years. In all four occasions though, the driver failed to win again that year.

It first happened 2003, when Kevin Harvick snapped a 37-race winless streak to earn his fourth career Cup victory. He wouldn’t win again until the spring 2005 race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The second occurrence was 2011. That year Paul Menard led 11 of the final 16 laps and beat Jeff Gordon to earn his first career Cup win. In the 293 races since, Menard is winless.

Ryan Newman followed in 2013, winning at his home track two weeks after it was revealed he wouldn’t return to Stewart-Haas Racing the following year. He wouldn’t win again until the spring 2017 race at Phoenix.

The most recent example of a first-time winner at Indianapolis came in 2017 with Kasey Kahne.

The then-Hendrick Motorsports driver survived two overtime restarts to claim his only win at Indianapolis. It also marked his first win since Atlanta in 2014. Kahne would never visit victory lane again after being forced into an early retirement in 2018 due to health issues.

Which winless drivers still trying to clinch a playoff spot this year have the best shot at winning Sunday?

Drivers near the bubble

Clint Bowyer (15th, +8 points above cutline) – Bowyer enters the weekend with two straight top 10s. Led 37 laps at Indy last year – his career-best there – before finishing fifth. It was his first top five there since 2010.

Ryan Newman won at Indianapolis in 2013. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Daniel Suarez (16th, tied with Ryan Newman at 617 points) – No laps led in two Indy starts. Best finish was seventh in 2017.

Ryan Newman (17th) – Hasn’t led a lap at Indy since his 2013 win. Has one top five (third in 2017) and one top 10 (10th in 2018) since the victory.

Jimmie Johnson (18th, 18 points behind cutline) – With four Indy wins, Johnson has the historical advantage among the drivers fighting for the last two playoff spots. But since he finished second to Newman in 2013, Johnson has just one top five at the track (third in 2016). He was in contention late in 2017 before a wreck took him out.

Paul Menard (19th, 69 points behind cutline) – Lightning isn’t known for hitting the same spot twice, but Menard would probably like for an exception to be made. In his seven Indy starts since winning there, he has two top 10s, finishing 10th in 2016 and ninth last year in his first start there for Wood Brothers Racing.

Potential spoilers for the spoilers

Matt DiBenedetto – The Leavine Family Racing driver has shown his potential over the last two months on short tracks and road courses, which lend themselves to drawing the competition together. But with the best ride he’s had in his career and time running out to prove himself for future employers, there’s no telling what DiBenedetto can will himself to in the regular-season finale.

Chris Buescher – Buescher only has one top 10 in three Indy starts (ninth in 2017) but he’s on his own personal streak of consistency. He enters the weekend having not finished lower than 18th in the last 14 races. Weirder results have happened at Indy, just ask Menard.

Don’t need to win, but they could

There are four playoff drivers who have yet to win – Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola, William Byron and Ryan Blaney.

Larson is the only one of the four with a top-10 finish at Indy, having earned three in his first three starts. He enters this weekend with eight top 10s in the last 10 races, including five top fives.

Byron placed 19th in his lone Brickyard 400. However, he has three top 10s in four starts at Pocono Raceway, the speedway similar to Indy with its long straightaways and relatively flat turns. He finished fourth there in July for his only top five in the last seven races.

Friday 5: Silly season off to a late start, leaving many questions

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — The anticipation of NASCAR’s Silly Season has been building because of its late arrival.

Wednesday’s announcement that David Ragan would not run full-time in Cup next year and Thursday’s announcement that Matt DiBenedetto was out at Leavine Family Racing after this season kickstarted Silly Season, making it the latest start to the ride-changing season in recent years.

Also Thursday, Erik Jones left little doubt he’ll be in the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing next season and a report stated that Christopher Bell will take over the No. 95 at Leavine Family Racing.

Many questions remain. Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer could be headed to Cup next season but have not announced where they’ll be. Clint Bowyer’s contract expires after this season, and while there are indications he’ll remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, nothing official has been announced. Kurt Busch signed a one-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing for this season and said after he won in July at Kentucky that “it would be stupid not to keep this group together.”

Those are just among some of the questions this Silly Season. There are other moves that could take place.

But until this week, there had been a lot of talk but little action. 

That’s much different than when Cup teams arrived at Bristol Motor Speedway two years ago for the August race. By that point, it had already been announced that:

— Matt Kenseth was out at Joe Gibbs Racing after the 2017 season.

Erik Jones would replace Kenseth in that ride in 2018.

Alex Bowman would take over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride in 2018.

Brad Keselowski had signed a contract extension with Team Penske.

Ryan Blaney was moving to Team Penske in 2018.

Paul Menard was taking over the Wood Brothers ride with Blaney moving

William Byron would drive the No. 24 in 2018

Matt DiBenedetto would remain with Go Fas Racing.

When Cup teams arrived at Bristol Motor Speedway last August, there were few moves that had been completed. The only announcements to that point were:

Bubba Wallace to remain with Richard Petty Motorsports through 2020.

— Kasey Kahne was retiring from full-time Cup racing.

Wallace’s announcement was in July. Kahne’s announcement was in August.

The decline in announcements to this point is partly on the complexity of completing deals. It’s not just the driver that has to be signed. There has to be enough sponsorship. Until there is, some deals won’t be done. At this rate, actual movement in Silly Season could continue to go deeper into the season. Of course, the talk is always there, even early in the year.

2. Life in the Fast Lane

Bristol Motor Speedway is notorious for nabbing speeders on pit road. And that could play a key role in Saturday night’s Cup race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

There have been at least six speeding penalties in each of the last 10 Cup races at the half-mile track. There were 11 speeding penalties in April’s race, the most at the track since 17 speeding penalties were called in the April 2016 race.

Those racing for the final playoff spots have had their troubles with speeding on pit road at Bristol.

Daniel Suarez, who is six points out of the final playoff spots, has been penalized for speeding in each of the past two Bristol races. Jimmie Johnson, who is 12 points out of the final playoff spot, also has been penalized for speeding in each of the past two Bristol races.

Ryan Newman, who has a 10-point lead on the final playoff spot, was penalized for speeding at Bristol in the 2018 night race.

Bristol’s pit road speed is 30 mph, the same as Martinsville Speedway but Martinsville has not had as many speeding penalties in recent races.

So what makes Bristol more troublesome for drivers?

The track has pit stalls on both the frontstretch and backstretch. On pit stops during cautions, drivers must enter pit road at the exit of Turn 2 even if their pits are on the frontstretch, meaning, they must drive down the backstretch pit road and then run below the apron in the corners before entering the frontstretch pit road. It is the turn where drivers can get in trouble with speeds by cutting it too sharply.

“You’re just trying to get everything you can,” Newman said. “You’re cutting that radius and it’s kind of an unspecified science, I guess, of trying to guess the distance and the speed and you only got some much time to practice it and when you get somebody racing you, you push it a little bit and you get caught.”

3. Sure bet (almost)

Kyle Busch has won six of the last 12 short track races in Cup. No one else has won more than once in that time.

He’s finished in the top three in eight of those 12 races. He’s finished eighth or better in all but one of those races. The exception was a 20th-place finish in last year’s night race at Bristol. He spun on Lap 2 and was hit by multiple cars in that race. Later, he had contact with Martin Truex Jr. and then spun with a flat tire with less than 20 laps to go in the race.

Here is a look at his recent finishes on short tracks (wins in bold):

8th — Richmond (April 2019)

1st — Bristol (April 2019)

3rd — Martinsville (March 2019)

4th — Martinsville (October 2018)

1st — Richmond (September 2018)

20th — Bristol (August 2018)

1st — Richmond (April 2018)

1st — Bristol (April 2018)

2nd — Martinsville (March 2018)

1st — Martinsville (October 2017)

9th — Richmond (September 2017)

1st — Bristol (August 2017)

4. A budding rivalry?

Sam Mayer and Chase Cabre have seemingly built quite a rivalry in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.

It’s been cooking for a bit among the title contenders.

In a story Thursday in the Bristol Herald Courier, Cabre said of Mayer: “I think he’s arrogant. Sam and I have talked, and he knows where I stand.”

Cabre also said in the story: “We have an ongoing rivalry, so things will happen and I’m not afraid to voice my opinion. There’s a good guy and bad guy element now between us. Nobody wants to tear up a race car, but it looks like Sam and I are going to be mashing heads for a while.”

It didn’t take long for them to make contact Thursday night.

Cabre spun on the opening lap after contact from Mayer. NASCAR penalized Mayer for the incident, forcing him to restart at the rear. Mayer went on to win the race and had plenty to say afterward about Cabre.

“He just keeps racing me like … you know what,” Mayer said. “I can’t say the word that describes him right now. He definitely does not race me clean. I did not appreciate it at all. It started at Memphis, all the way back there (June 1 in a race won by Cabre). I waited until it really mattered to finally do something and unfortunately I did it big. I wouldn’t want to call it a rivalry.”

Cabre finished eighth. Medics came to his wrecked car after the race and helped him on to a stretcher. After being checked in the infield care center, he was transported to a local hospital for further evaluation. He later tweeted he was suffering from back pain.

5. Leading the way

Since NBC took over broadcasting the Cup races, beginning June 30 at Chicagoland Speedway, no driver has scored more points than Denny Hamlin.

He has scored 273 points in those seven races. He’s followed by Martin Truex Jr. (262 points), Kyle Busch (250), Kevin Harvick (249) and Erik Jones (237).

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