Larson might be lead­ing NAS­CAR shift

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - DAVID GEOR­GETTE sports@la­times.com

When NAS­CAR’s fre­quent fluc­tu­a­tions with rules and points are jux­ta­posed against the re­dun­dancy of left turn af­ter left turn af­ter left turn, the stark con­trast can cre­ate a con­tra­dic­tory land­scape:

Is any­thing re­ally chang­ing?

Ap­pro­pri­ately this week­end, the Mon­ster En­ergy Cup sea­son heads back to Cal­i­for­nia for Sun­day’s Toy­ota / Save Mart 350 on Sonoma Race­way’s 2.52mile road course, where at least the driv­ers will be turn­ing right as well as left as NAS­CAR Na­tion touts its ris­ing stars.

Fresh faces in Vic­tory Lane pre­cip­i­tate en­cour­age­ment that con­cerns over de­clin­ing broad­cast rat­ings and at­ten­dance fig­ures can be blunted by the new stars, es­pe­cially with the re­tire­ments of Jeff Gor­don two years ago and Tony Ste­wart af­ter last year. Add Carl Ed­wards’ stun­ning de­ci­sion to walk away be­fore this cam­paign and the im­pend­ing de­par­ture of icon Dale Earn­hardt Jr. af­ter this year, and it’s im­per­a­tive that young com­pelling com­peti­tors step into the spot­light.

Stand­ings leader Kyle Larson’s vic­tory near Detroit at Michi­gan International Speedway for Chip Ganassi Rac­ing on Sun­day is an ex­am­ple of what NAS­CAR would seem to need. The 24-year-old Ja­panese-Amer­i­can driver from Elk Grove — that’s just about 80 miles from the Sonoma course — can of­fer ap­peal to po­ten­tial new fans, young and old. Al­ready this sea­son he has won the other Cal­i­for­nia race in March in Fon­tana, so Larson could pump up NAS­CAR’s stand­ing in the West with a Golden State sweep dur­ing a sea­son in which he has fre­quently been in con­tention.

“We’ve been so close to so many other wins,” Larson said. “This is our sec­ond Cup win of the year, but we’ve had six sec­ond-place fin­ishes. All in all, it’s a good sea­son so far and we’ll con­tinue to keep build­ing on what we’ve got.”

And big-time first-time wins this year by 29-year-old Ricky Sten­house (at Tal­ladega) and by 27-year-old Austin Dil­lon (in NAS­CAR’s long­est race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Char­lotte) pro­vided ev­i­dence that there’s rea­son to ride with the younger guys.

“I keep say­ing that NAS­CAR is in a great, great spot,” Larson said. “Even with Dale Jr. re­tir­ing this year, I think it’s a huge op­por­tu­nity for our sport. Dale Jr. has prob­a­bly three­quar­ters of our fan base. You might lose a few thou­sand of his fans that might dis­ap­pear. The rest of them are go­ing to pick new driv­ers. I think new ri­val­ries are go­ing to be built. It’s go­ing to bring some ex­cite­ment back to the race­track.”

But it can be help­ful to check the brakes be­fore rush­ing head­long into a curv­ing fu­ture.

Since NAS­CAR went to a post­sea­son for­mat in 2004, there have been mul­ti­ple it­er­a­tions for ac­cu­mu­lat­ing points, in­clud­ing an elim­i­na­tion process the past three years that put a pre­mium on ac­tu­ally win­ning for the 16 driv­ers who qual­ify for the post­sea­son.

And with only 11 of the 26 reg­u­lar-sea­son races re­main­ing, the stand­ings fea­ture only two new­com­ers who have staked claims to the post­sea­son: Sten­house and 23-year-old Ryan Blaney (who won two weeks ago at Po­cono).

Were the post­sea­son to start Sun­day, Jim­mie John­son (three wins this year) would be right near the front in his pur­suit of a record eighth sea­son ti­tle. And past sea­son cham­pi­ons such as Brad Ke­selowski (two wins this year), Kurt Busch (one), Kyle Busch (0), Kevin Har­vick (0) and Matt Kenseth (0) would be gear­ing for a run at another crown too.

Don’t count on the un­du­la­tions of the Sonoma course to open a path to the post­sea­son for an up-and-comer. Start­ing with 2016, here are the past four winners in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia: Ste­wart, Kyle Busch, Ed­wards and veteran Martin Truex Jr. (who is just five points be­hind leader Larson in the stand­ings). Even the re­cent winners from the Cup’s other road course at New York’s Watkins Glen in Au­gust — Denny Ham­lin, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — are es­tab­lished veter­ans other than 2014 win­ner AJ All­mendinger.

But for right now, Larson is head­ing home as the leader of the pack, and he is hold­ing court in Vic­tory Lane.

“I’m happy that I seem to be head of that youth move­ment right now,” Larson said. “With Ryan Blaney get­ting the win last week; you look at Chase [El­liott] fin­ish­ing sec­ond. Joey is a veteran, but he’s only a cou­ple years older than I am. Then Sten­house, Austin Dil­lon, Erik Jones, [Daniel] Suarez, so many driv­ers in great equip­ment right now that are run­ning up front.

“I think ev­ery­body is kind of ner­vous about where it’s go­ing to be, but I think for a lot of us, our fan bases are go­ing to grow as well as NAS­CAR’s fan base.”

Another young­ster to watch

Among NAS­CAR’s new young driv­ers is 19-year-old Wil­liam By­ron, who re­ceived a huge en­dorse­ment af­ter Ham­lin edged him by a Michi­gan record-tight 0.012 sec­onds for the check­ered flag in Satur­day’s Xfin­ity Se­ries race.

“Let’s see: When I was 19, I think I was work­ing at Sub­way mak­ing sand­wiches. That or work­ing at my dad’s trailer shop,” Ham­lin said. “I can’t re­late, hon­estly. To be at this level at the age that he is, it’s a huge ad­van­tage for him for the next 20 years, 25 years. He’s go­ing to be start­ing his curve a lot ear­lier. I’m sure by the time he’s 24, 25, he’ll be con­tend­ing for Cup cham­pi­onships.”

But don’t for­get the champ

De­fend­ing Cup champ John­son and Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports an­nounced a three-year con­tract ex­ten­sion through 2020 for the seven-time sea­son king last week­end in Michi­gan.

“I’ve never hon­estly been driven by stats and I’ve said it so many times, but it’s hard to ig­nore where I sit on the wins list and not let my com­pet­i­tive spirit kick in and want more,” said the 41-year-old John­son, who is tied for sixth on the ca­reer list with 83 wins. “Cer­tainly, I would love to climb fur­ther up the lad­der there. Eight cham­pi­onships, I would love to stand alone at that.”

Chris Trot­man Getty Im­ages

AF­TER WIN­NING at Fon­tana in March, Kyle Larson is look­ing for a Cal­i­for­nia sweep at Sonoma.

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