NASCAR: Kyle Larson Tops First-Time Championship Contenders

Kyle Larson is scorching hot at the right time.

Kyle Larsen is finally paying dividends.

The NASCAR regular season concluded at Richmond International Raceway, showcasing the continued supremacy of the Toyotas. Like 2015, the entire Joe Gibbs Racing stable of defending Champion Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth have all qualified for the Chase playoffs, along with the affiliated Toyota Furniture Row team of Martin Truex, Jr.

It’s a supreme overflow of riches for Toyota, given they have won 13 of the 26 regular season races. On Sunday at Richmond, winner Hamlin and the other Toyota drivers led 385 of 407 laps.

If NASCAR’s Chase playoff is to deliver any surprise moments during its final ten races, we may need to look for the four first-time qualifiers to possibly break the Toyota juggernaut, given all of these newbies have been competing in the Sprint Cup series for less than three seasons.

Given that three of the rookie qualifiers are previous champions in NASCAR XFINITY ladder series, how do these young guns stack up in their potential for securing one of the final four spots at the Homestead-Miami Speedway finale that will determine NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Champion?

Chris Buescher

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Despite talent, it’s doubtful that Chris Buescher makes it past the first Chase round.

Without doubt, the greatest shock was rookie Chris Buescher qualifying for the Chase by using a fuel strategy gamble to win the race-shortened race at Pocono. Completing his work-study program at Front Row Motorsports while Roush Fenway Racing leadership evaluates his future potential, Buescher is the only driver within the extended RFR family to have qualified for the Chase.

As a result, expect both Ford and RFR to be more willing to throwing human and technical resources behind Buescher’s long-shot bid for a Championship.

Regardless, his playoff stay will likely be short, as Buescher drives for small team in a Chase full of Goliaths. Including his victory, he has only two top 10 finishes with a season average finish of 26.7, and it is difficult to foresee him continuing beyond the first Chase round.

Austin Dillon

As most improved over the past three years, Dillon leads the Richard Childress Racing team as the sole contender to this year’s Chase, with veterans Paul Menard and Ryan Newman having failed to repeat this year as qualifiers.

A primary reason that Dillon locked in his first Chase berth is his increased consistency during 2016. He’s posted a seasons average finish of 14.6, as compared to a career average of 19.3 through his first two seasons. That consistency could carry Dillon through the first two rounds of the Chase, as Dillon has posted ten top 10 finishes during the regular season with only one DNF.

Right now, Dillon seems to manage his equipment well and make smart decisions; he just needs a little more speed to be in contention for wins. With a majority of intermediate tracks in the Chase, speed will be critical and the Dow No. 3 Chevrolet team still seems a little stunted in this department.

Chase Elliott

Taking over the iconic ride of the semi-retired Jeff Gordon, Elliott’s rookie season has been volatile with plenty of ups and downs. Still, Elliott collected enough points to qualify 14th. At times, Elliott has run exceptionally well. Elliott has delivered the most top ten finishes among the four first-timers, with thirteen top 10 and seven top 5 finishes.

Still, Elliott has not yet closed the deal with a regular season win.

He finished 2nd twice at Michigan, 3rd at Dover, and 4th at Bristol, but poor restarts have been his nemesis. Nonetheless, Chase Elliott may just still the best and biggest surprise of the newcomers, if he can just stop spinning the tires on restarts, given how critical restarts are to controlling the race in the closing stages.

My take is that Elliott will fall just short of the Homestead finale, with elimination in the 3rd round of playoffs. As a former XFINITY Series Champion, Elliott just needs a little more experience under his belt before he fulfills his potential.

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson is scorching hot at the right time. Closing out the last three races of the regular season, Larson has finished on the podium each time, with a 1st at Michigan, 2nd at Darlington, and 3rd at Richmond. Larson has ramped up with an average 10.6 finish in the 2nd half of the season, as compared to the 1st half season average of 20.3.

I respect Larson’s aggressiveness and his ability to experiment early on with new racing lines. He has confidence from his recent breakthrough win, and Larson is a strong collaborative position with teammate Jamie McMurray also having qualified for the Chase, which is a first for the Chip Ganassi Racing contingent. Additionally, the CGR team has been testing several new car chassis, and may just have a few extra bullets in the chamber for the Chase playoffs.

Larson is undoubtedly an exceptional talent; if he can keep it clicking with his new crew chief Chad Johnston during the playoffs, a few well-timed strategy gambles may just carry him to the Championship series finale.

The Chase playoff can be a wild and stressful ten-week stretch, with four successive elimination rounds to the Championship. These young guns must take it one race at a time, given a race victory in any round provides the golden ticket to automatically move on. But then again, wouldn’t it be a stellar narrative if one of these drivers can break through to spice up the NASCAR Championship?

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

 

NASCAR: Kyle Larson Looks to 2016 Breakout Year

2015 wasn't the year Larson had hoped for, but 2016 is right around the corner.

2015 wasn’t the year Larson had hoped for, but 2016 is right around the corner.

Celebrated as the 2014 NASCAR Sunoco Rookie of the Year and poster child for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, Kyle Larson was expected to be the sports next protégé, with many expecting him to capture his first NASCAR Cup win during his 2015 sophomore season.

So lofty were the 2015 expectations for Larson as driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet SS that Felix Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR), “guaranteed” that both of his team’s two drivers would make the Chase in 2015.

“I’ve never guaranteed anybody anything in all the years I’ve been in racing, but I guarantee both of these guys will be in the Chase,” Sabates declared.

Well, only one driver did, and so the hammer fell at the #42 team with a crew chief change, as Chris Heroy departed CGR for a crew chief job at Richard Petty Motorsports with the newly reconstituted #9 Ford ride with driver Brian Scott.

Instead, the crew chief gambit of musical chairs during the NASCAR off season continued with Chad Johnston, formerly Tony Stewart’s crew chief, being named as the new CGR crew chief for Larson and the #42 Target team.

Felix Sabates, a long time fixture on the NASCAR scene, has high hopes for Larson.

Felix Sabates, a long time fixture on the NASCAR scene, has high hopes for Larson.

The tale of the tape was evident in comparing Larson on-track performance between 2014 and 2015:

  • In 2014, Larson had eight top 5’s and seventeen top 10’s, displaying remarkable prowess and improvement over the season
  • In 2015, Larson was a picture of inconsistency with only two top 5’s and ten top 10’s. Moreover, what really stands out in 2015 is the differential between qualifying (a season average starting position of 13th), compared to a disappointing average finish of 19th. No doubt that the Target Ganassi Racing team failed to improve the car during the course of the race
  • More revealing, for the 35 races that Larson competed in during 2015, he finished shabbier on 23 of those tracks as compared to 2014. That is a stunner, given that Larson was returning to these tracks for a second or third time after his rookie year

Reflects Larson, “As much as I’m going to miss (Heroy), I support it. You have to make some kind of change, I guess, if you haven’t won…I think a change has to come.”

Whether owing to not keeping up with the track or executing poorly on pit stops, the crew chief ends up being held accountable for such weak results. And a well-known sponsor like Target is looking for a sizeable marketing payoff on their partnership with Larson, in which they often double down sponsorship on combo weekends when Larson races in both the XFINITY Series and Cup events.

Larson is undoubtedly an exceptional talent, and Johnston is eager to get to work with him and build a foundation of success. Often, Larson seems to be the initial driver to hit upon the high line and showcase the fastest way around the track during race weekend. However, running nearest to the wall is also the easiest way to put the car into the fence on one’s own. As head coach, ideally Johnston can find the right balance by ensuring that Larson takes care of his equipment over the course of the race and not make novice slipups that seemed more evident during 2015.

Nonetheless, the NASCAR Cup Series is a highly pressurized environment where crew chiefs must cope with the persistent mindset of “What have you done for me lately?

For 2016, it’s the right time for Larson to deliver on the grand expectations of both fans and his sponsors. Larson already has three career wins in the XFINITY Series. During the last laps of the 2015 Homestead-Miami Sprint Cup finale, Larson was in contention for the win until a late race caution relegated him to a 5th place finish. For 2016, snatching his first Sprint Cup victory would be an enormous confidence shot in the arm for both Larson and Johnston.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

Kyle Larson Considered By Many To Be Sure Winner In 2015

Kyle Larson came aboard Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2014 after going through NASCAR's diversity program. He put together an excellent season and won the Rookie of the Year title.

Kyle Larson came aboard Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2014 after going through NASCAR’s diversity program. He put together an excellent season and won the Rookie of the Year title.

If you aren’t betting that Kyle Larson will win a race in the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, you are in the minority.

Fact is, if Larson had won just one race last year and made it into the Chase for the Sprint Cup, he would have been a serious challenger for the championship.

That’s because he may have raced at his best during the Chase, with five consecutive finishes in the top five. That would have made him tough to beat.

As it is, the guys in the Chase were probably relieved Larson was not among them.

Tapped by Earnhardt Ganassi Racing to replace Juan Pablo Montoya in 2014, Larson put together a solid inaugural season. He had eight finishes among the top five and 17 among the top 10 and captured Rookie of the Year honors.

The 22-year-old Larson was particularly effective during the last half of the season when he raced on tracks for a second time.

And, as said, he was spectacular in the Chase. In the first five races of the 10-race “playoff” Larson finished third, second, sixth, second and sixth.

He nearly won at Chicago, the first Chase race.

After leading over 30 laps, with 18 laps to go he engaged in a battle with Kevin Harvick, allowing Brad Keselowski to catch up and pass Larson for the lead and ultimately the win.

After two more cautions, Larson finished third after battling Jeff Gordon – who admitted he was a Larson fan.

In a post-race media conference Gordon called Larson “The real deal” and Larson said, “It’s touching when you hear a champion say that about you. It’s a huge deal.”

Betcha Gordon thinks Larson is going to win this year.

During his first season with EGR one of Larson's accomplishments was to win the pole for the second race at Pocono.

During his first season with EGR one of Larson’s accomplishments was to win the pole for the second race at Pocono.

Larson is a Japanese American, also of Native American heritage, who hails from Elk Grove, Calif. His Japanese American mother’s parents spent time in an internment camp.

He came up through the racing ranks. He is a Drive for Diversity graduate who signed with EGR and promptly won his first stock car race.

He won the 2012 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship and the Rookie of the Year title driving for Rev Racing. It was the first title for the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program.

Larson then finished first and second in his two initial NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts with Turner Scott Motorsports in conjunction with EGR.

In 2013 Larson won the Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year Award – he has a thing for rookie titles, doesn’t he? – after he finished eighth in the final standings with nine top-five and 17 top-10 finishes. He made four Sprint Cup starts that season before entering competition full-time last year.

Larson has shown a penchant for adapting to every NASCAR circuit on which he has raced. Fact is he has more than adapted – he has excelled.

Given that he now has one full Sprint Cup season under his belt he should be better prepared and more experienced. It stands to reason that will serve him well in 2015.

But there are no guarantees. Until we get into the season we’re not certain what effect the 2015 rules changes will have. Some teams may get their arms around them pretty quickly but others may struggle.

Last year, you remember, Matt Kenseth struggled and failed to win a race after winning seven times in 2013.

Other drivers who have had notable past seasons, like Jimmie Johnson, seemed to be playing catch-up in 2014.

My personal belief is that I’m not certain the 2015 rules will make much difference at all.

And I also join many others, including nearly everyone in the garage area, who think it’s just a matter of time – and it may be a short time – before Larson becomes a winner.

 

Busch Overcame ‘Mediocrity,’ Avoided Tire Woes For Clutch Victory

Kyle Busch overcame handling problems and avoided tire woes to win at Fontana for his first victory of the year. He’s now virtually assured a place in the Chase.

It’s very likely Kyle Busch didn’t think he had a chance at victory in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. After all, he said that he had a “mediocre car all day.”

But sometime things can change for the better – and at the last moment.

Busch avoided the tire problems that plagued the field, overcame his handling problems and won the race on the last lap of a green-white-checkered restart.

Perhaps no one was more surprised than he was.

“I came off the fourth turn in disbelief that we won this thing, because we were mediocre all day,” said Busch, who has now won at Fontana for two years straight. “It was really weird, not a race we’re typically used to.”

That may be, but Busch will take the results any way he can get them. He is the fifth different winner in 2014 and his victory all but assures him a position in this year’s 16-man Chase for the Sprint Cup.

He’s got his shot at a championship. And despite his achievements – 29 career victories – he’s never won one.

“This was a ‘Days of Thunder’ thing,” Busch said. “Holy cow, what do you expect with a green-white-checkered finish where most everyone has to come down for four tires?

“But with this win, there’s a load off my shoulders and I can now go out the rest of the season and race the way I want to.”

Busch battled handling problems in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota throughout the race. The car was loose and had no grip on the rough Auto Club surface.

Rookie Kyle Larson finished second at Fontana on the heels of his Nationwide Series victory at the track a day earlier.

Crew chief Dave Rogers called for numerous track bar and air pressure changes to cure the problems.

During a 26-lap green flag run, Busch’s car was mired in eighth place and seemingly going nowhere. But he began to pick off rivals one by one and was in third place by lap 194 of 200 and second on lap 196.

On lap 197 a caution came out after Clint Bowyer’s Toyota spun. For Rogers, there was nothing else to do but give his driver four fresh tires.

Busch came out fifth in the running but more important, he was the first driver with fresh rubber all around.

On the restart, it was all Busch.

He split the cars of brother Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart, teammates at Stewart Haas Racing, and then effectively blocked rookie Kyle Larson to earn his third career win at the two-mile Auto Club track.“I knew four tires was going to win the race, so I’m glad Dave called that,” said Busch, who led only five laps in the race.

“There was some great racing up front between Tony and Kurt – it was really interesting to watch that. “I went into turn one thinking ‘I’m going to run the middle,’ and then Tony started sliding off the bottom and I’m like, ‘Nope, not having it.’

I had to get some brake and cut my car to the left and drove underneath him and got him cleared off turn two.“I was able to keep Kyle Larson behind me.

Man, what a shoe that boy is.”Indeed, Larson, who drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, had a very impressive weekend.

He won the Nationwide Series on the day prior to the Auto Club 400, giving him a one-two sweep in two events.“Yeah, it’s been a really good weekend,” said Larson.

“I guess you couldn’t ask for more, but I was surprised to get up there late in the race.  We were probably a 12thplace car for most of the day.

“We struggled with our Chevy being too loose on exit but still too tight in the center.  We tightened the exit up and got way too tight in the center.

“My guys worked really hard all day long to find that right balance, and right there on the last pit stop we were able to make good enough adjustments where we could go hard for a couple laps.”“Good adjustments” by other teams might have saved them from the tire problems that struck many.Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski, Marcos Ambrose and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were among the drivers who had problems with their tires – specifically, left-side blowouts in most cases.

Some drivers suggested the cause was the Goodyear tire. Others maintained it was the abrasiveness of the track surface.Goodyear maintained it was aggressive setups and air pressure that cause the problems.

The Gen 6 car has more down force with a larger rear spoiler.Many teams ran as little as 11 psi in the tires. Goodyear recommended 22 psi.

Also, many teams utilized increased camber.Not surprisingly blown tires were anticipated and began as early as practice.

“Goodyear is doing a good job,” said Kurt Busch, who finished third.

“We have faster cars, more down force and NASCAR allows us to put in whatever camber we want.

“Therefore, it’s up to the team’s discretion if you are going to have a problem or not.

”Not so, said Keselowski.“If air pressure was the issue, then we would have blown as many tires last year, because it’s all the same air pressure settings as last season,” he said.

“You just can’t add 500-600 pounds of down force to a car along with a track that has bumps like you are on a Michigan freeway.

“The tires had no margin from last year and I expect similar issues throughout the season.”

While tire problems sent Edwards to 10th place and Earnhardt Jr. to 12th, they are now one-two in the point standings, with Edwards leading by a single point. Keselowski, who tumbled to 26th at Fontana, fell from first to fourth in the standings.

Only seven points separate No. 1 from No. 5.

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