Now a champion, Kyle Larson covets victory in NASCAR‘s biggest race

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson addressed the media corps Wednesday afternoon taking questions on a wide variety of topics from his chances in Sunday‘s Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), to his pick as to who would turn in the “next” breakout season, to his expectations for a back-to-back title trophy hoist.

Larson‘s best Daytona 500 finish in eight starts is seventh-place — twice — in 2016 and 2019. He‘s led 17 laps total at the track — 16 in the 2017 race and one lap last year en route to a 10th-place showing.

“It‘s the biggest race in our sport so I want to win it and I get excited to come down here, spend the week, get to go to Disney, run sprint cars and compete in the biggest race of our year,” said Larson, who drives the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

“I haven‘t had much success here so that part of it doesn‘t get me too excited. I was close to winning in 2017. I crossed the line coming to the white as the leader then ran out of fuel. That was a really cool. I just remember the emotions of that, I was like, ‘wow,‘ I could win the Daytona 500. And not winning it fuels me to want to win it in my future. Before that race and every race since I have been not even close. I would love to do it.

“For me,” Larson continued. “I‘ve chased races more than championships, so the priority of winning big races hasn‘t changed at all because it‘s more in front of you than the championship is really.”

Larson seems confident that one of his main challengers for a second title will come from fellow Californian, Tyler Reddick — driver of the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Reddick, a two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion (2018-19), is still looking for his first win in the premier NASCAR Cup Series level, but has three runner-up finishes — at Texas (2020), Homestead, Fla. (2021) and the Charlotte ROVAL (2021).

Both Larson and Reddick raced sprint cars and midgets on their way up to NASCAR‘s major league and there is great respect between the two.

“I think Tyler Reddick is going to have an amazing season,” Larson said. “I think he‘s been the best car at all the tests. I think he showed last week at the Clash he‘s really good. I feel like when I watch him, I‘m watching myself just because we‘re both really aggressive and he seems to be even a little more aggressive and keep things in control better than I could back when I was running really hard in Ganassi equipment trying to run up front.

“I feel like he‘s the guy I look at this year that‘s going to have the breakout season and winning a lot of races.”

That‘s obviously a theme for Larson, whose 10-race haul in 2021 was the most in a single season since former Hendrick driver, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson won 10 races in 2007.

There‘s something in the air at Daytona, and Denny Hamlin can see it

When it comes to racing in the Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin is in elite company.

He‘s the only active NASCAR Cup Series driver with more than one victory in the Great American Race. In fact, in the last six years, Hamlin has triumphed three times in the season-opening points event.

Historically, only two drivers have more victories in the 500 than Hamlin—Richard Petty with an unassailable seven and Cale Yarborough with four. All three of the other drivers with three wins already have earned admission into the NASCAR Hall of Fame—Bobby Allison, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon.

Though Hamlin doesn‘t consider the Daytona 500 a wild card race per se, he does acknowledge that superspeedway racing increases the pool of possible winners.

So how has the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota managed to win the race three times in his last six starts, and will his prowess carry over with the advent of NASCAR‘s new Next Gen race car?

“In general, I just think I have a good understanding of the air here and how it moves around the walls,” Hamlin said Wednesday during Daytona 500 Media Day interviews. “Talladega is different. If you look at our results, we haven‘t won as much at Talladega, but we‘ve been pretty good.

“Here, there is just something about, whatever it is, the banking or the width of the track, height of the walls or something that I just kind of know where those little pockets of air are, it seems like, that are a little bit better.

“We have a new car now, and it‘s going to move around a little bit different, and we will probably be learning just like everyone else will be this weekend. I don‘t know that the advantage really will be as big as what it was in the past.”

Chase Elliott: Emphasis on qualifying is not wasted effort

Conventional wisdom is that starting position in the Daytona 500 means little with respect to the outcome of the race, superspeedway racing gives drivers ample opportunity to improve their positions during the course of a 500-mile event.

But for Hendrick Motorsports, qualifying for the Great American Race is a point of pride—with practical aspects attached.

Hendrick drivers have won six of the last seven Daytona 500 poles. Chevrolets have topped qualifying for the season opener for the last nine years, dating to Danica Patrick‘s historic pole win in 2013.

“Speedway racing has never been overlooked at HMS,” said Chase Elliott, who won back-to-back Daytona 500 pole positions in 2016 and 2017. “(Crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) does a really good job of massaging and really paying attention to all the details that I feel like it takes to be good here.

“I feel like that‘s shown over the course of my time with him and even going back before me. There‘s been a lot of success there. I do think it‘s an area where they put a lot of emphasis and put a lot of work into the cars, but we all want to win on Sunday more than anything.”

Elliott doesn‘t feel the organization places emphasis on time trials to the detriment of the race itself.

“Qualifying day is really just kind of a testament of how much speed your car has,” Elliott said. “I would rather have that than not. I feel like we have—on more than one occasion down here—I‘ve probably crashed one of the fastest cars during the Daytona 500 and I was driving it.

“I think we‘ve had plenty of opportunities. We just have to be smart about our decisions and do better jobs behind the wheel.”

Martin Truex Jr.: Pit stops are still a learning experience

As an exhibition race with a halfway break on a quarter-mile track, the Feb. 6 Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum didn‘t feature pit stops.

But pitting the Next Gen cars—perhaps under green-flag conditions—certainly will come into play this week during Thursday‘s Duels and during Sunday‘s Daytona 500 that could present potential pitfalls, given the move to a single lug to fasten each tire and a larger 20-gallon fuel cell in the NASCAR Cup Series cars.

Given the new specs, fueling the cars could take roughly three seconds longer than changing the tires, throwing off the timing ingrained in drivers throughout years of working with the previous car.

“It‘s going to—I‘m sure—bite some people,” said Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “I really have no idea. Pit stops are all about timing. You kind of know when you stop, and the jack goes up how much time it will be. You kind of have a little bit of a routine with the gearing and the clutch and where your feet are on the pedals trying to leave the box, so definitely a little bit different here.

“It‘s just something we have to get used to. It‘s going to be weird the first time I‘m sure—the first couple times—just figuring it all out. Pedals are different, shifters are different. The timing is going to be all different for us.”

Ryan Blaney Back for Daytona Redemption

Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney — his beard gone and hair short in preparation to start the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season — showed up in Daytona Beach fresh off the best season of his six-year fulltime career in the NASCAR Cup Series.

His three wins and 20 top-10 finishes are career high marks. And he carries plenty of optimism into 2022, despite the challenge of a new car to race.

Not only is Blaney the most recent winner on the Daytona high-banks — taking the trophy in the August 2021 regular season finale but he has three especially close near-misses in the Daytona 500. He‘s finished runner-up twice — in 2017 and 2020 and dominated the 2018 race, leading 118 of the 207 laps only to finish seventh.

The 28-year-old driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford refuses to label himself a “sure-bet” for Sunday‘s trophies. But he does like his chances.

“I don‘t sit around and be like, ‘Man, I‘m a race favorite,‘” Blaney said. “But you have confidence in yourself. It builds confidence when you are successful at speedways.

“We won the August race here, so you build confidence and I think I have a decent idea of what to do to try to get to Victory Lane here. [But] I think a lot of people can be favorites. A lot of teams and drivers that have great opportunities to win this race, I just think you‘ve got to do the things you can to the best of your ability and try to put yourself in a really good spot.”

And, as far as good spots go, Blaney said he was “over” his high-contact racing with Erik Jones two weeks ago at the Busch Light Clash exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Blaney‘s Ford ended up in the wall and his day cut short and he was clearly irritated at the incident, even throwing his HANS device in frustration — a rare showing of such emotion from the popular driver.

Jones said the two drivers haven‘t spoken yet and Blaney said he was ready to move on.

“I don‘t have anything to really talk to him about,” Blaney said. “I‘m over it. It‘s funny, he thought I was supposed to apologize after I got fenced, but two people are going to think differently. I haven‘t talked to him, but I‘m over it. It‘s the past and we‘ll move on from it.”

Big Year for Bubba Wallace

A new clothing line launch from sponsor McDonald‘s, a new teammate at 23XI Racing in Kurt Busch, a maiden victory under his belt from 2021 and a wedding in the works, it‘s safe to say Bubba Wallace has an exciting 2022 on the horizon — one that he‘d love to start off with a victory in Sunday‘s Daytona 500.

Expectations are high all around for Wallace as he arrived in Daytona Beach to start his fifth fulltime season in the NASCAR Cup Series rank. He is coming off his best season showing — that first victory (at Talladega, Ala.); a career best three top-five finishes and a career high in laps led (62) in a season.

“Obviously, we want to make the Playoffs and compete for a championship,” Wallace, 28, said. “That‘s a given.

“For us, it‘s just trying to be consistent. We had a lot of finishes where it was — win at Talladega and the ROVAL (14th place) next, so you were kind of back-and-forth. It‘s smoothing out the graph on the result chart that‘s important to us to bring that graph lower and lower.

“Everybody is figuring out this new car,” he added. “But making sure we are on the upper tier of those who figure it out first so we can have that advantage.”

Wallace‘s team owners, perennial NASCAR Cup Series champion Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan, expanded the team — adding the No. 45 Toyota and driver, former series champion Kurt Busch. Already, the addition has been beneficial, according to Wallace.

“Kurt is fun,” he said. “He has a lot of one-liners that he will throw out that will catch you off-guard, but it is fun — it is cool in the heat of the battle to try to figure out what it takes for our team to be successful. He‘s providing lots of insight and new perspective on how to look at things in a different angle to make sure we are crossing everything off the list. I think it‘s been good.

“It‘s been fun to have Kurt, so now that we are diving into the start of the season, we‘re going to push each other to be the best that (we) can be.”

— NASCAR Wire Service —

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