Will phenom Kyle Larson take the Sprint Cup Series by storm in his rookie season in 2014?

Kyle Larson ready to show he has what it takes in Sprint Cup in 2014

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When you have incredible talent, some things are just foregone conclusions. But no matter what Kyle Larson accomplishes in his rookie Sprint Cup season with Chip Ganassi Racing, he’ll still likely go down in NASCAR history as having the shortest job interview and hiring process.

“If you know Chip, he’s really quick about what he says,” Larson said with a laugh, recalling the day Ganassi called and changed the young driver’s life.

“The phone call lasted probably 45 seconds. I was just driving down the road, I kind of maybe knew what the phone call was going to be about, so I pulled over and he said, ‘Hey, it’s Chip. Yo! Ready to drive the 42 next year?’ I said yeah. He said, ‘Okay, anything else?’ Click. That’s how it went.”

As the replacement for Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet, Larson will definitely have a proverbial target on his back that is more than just representing his team’s primary sponsor.

There’s his age (21), his relatively short apprenticeship in the Nationwide Series (one season) and a reputation of being perhaps one of the most talented drivers to come up through the short track, sprint car and midget ranks in the last decade-plus.

But it’s hard to ignore the confidence Ganassi and Sabates have in Larson, not to mention the respect he’s already gained from several of his Sprint Cup peers and heroes.

“I am blown away by this kid,” Gordon said of Larson in a TV interview a little over a year ago. “He makes me look like nothing. He’s maybe a little more closer to Tony Stewart, who drove a lot more cars over the years than I have. I have Kyle’s number. I text him when he wins a race. I’m getting tired of texting him. The kid will win two different divisions in the same weekend. The kid is really spectacular. I think he’s probably the rawest, most talented race car driver I know of.”

In an interview with AutoWeek magazine last year, Tony Stewart said of Larson, “That kid is a lot better than (Jeff) Gordon or I was at his age,” Stewart said. “You’re going to be hearing about him for a long time. He’s a special talent.”

Larson was the talk of the morning session Tuesday in the second day of the four-day annual NASCAR Media Tour. He’s one of eight contenders for Rookie of the Year in the Sprint Cup Series, but it would not be a stretch to consider him the favorite already.

“The kid’s ready,” Ganassi said last August when he announced he had signed Larson to replace Montoya, who has moved back to the IndyCar Series this year after a seven-year run in NASCAR.

Ganassi was not able to attend Tuesday’s media session due to other commitments, but team co-owner Felix Sabates was there and readily admitted Larson will be a game-changer for both the race team but also for NASCAR.

To illustrate that, Sabates admitted he’s cut back on his travel schedule to races in recent years, but plans on ratcheting that up considerably to about 28 races on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule so that he can watch Larson race – and ultimately win.

“I want to be there when Kyle wins for the first time,” Sabates said. “He didn’t just come out of the closet yesterday. I’ve been following him for awhile. When he was 17 years old, I said he’s the real McCoy. Very seldom do you get someone that age, that mature, in a race car. When he hit the wall at Daytona and went airborne, I thought that was it, put a fork in him, he’s done. And then the next week, he was (back) out there, going sideways.”

For such a young man, Larson is a seasoned driver. He’s spent the last several years racing primarily sprint cars and midgets on short tracks around the country, winning dozens of races. He captured the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship in 2012, winning two races and finishing in the top 10 12 times in 14 starts.

In just two Camping World Truck Series events last season, he won one and finished runner-up in the other. And then in his first full-time campaign on the Nationwide Series, Larson made 33 starts and, while he failed to win a race, finished runner-up four times, had 17 top-10 finishes and wound up an outstanding eighth in the final standings.

While Larson was involved in a massive pileup in the season-opening race at Daytona last year, where his car essentially disintegrated around him and with parts including a tire that flew into the crowd and injured two dozen fans, he amazingly was unhurt in the wreck. It was one of the most vicious crashes in NASCAR in recent memory.

“Having a background in sprint cars, wrecks like that happen – not all the time, but enough to where you’re not surprised when it happens,” Larson said. “It didn’t affect me mentally at all, I was just more worried about the fans and stuff. I was supposed to run a race that night, but I decided not to.

“It wasn’t because I was scared about racing, it was more out of respect for the fans. It probably wasn’t even in the top five of my worst wrecks. On video, it looks real bad, but as far as being injured or sore, it wasn’t bad at all. As a race car driver, you can’t be scared, and I tried to put things behind me pretty quick. So, I don’t think about it a whole lot.”

To his credit, Larson appears rather level-headed. While he smiles and says Jeff Gordon is his idol and that he at some point collected autographs of all his favorite drivers, he’s not letting the magnitude of his ascension to Sprint Cup to leave him awestruck. He knows he has a job and plans on going out and doing it.

“It’s exciting, but I don’t think about that stuff a whole lot,” he said. “When we’re strapped into the cars, we’re all just race car drivers. It’s just not that big of a deal to me. They’re just other race car drivers. I mean, when they come up to me, they’re probably not like, ‘Wow, that’s Kyle Larson.’ Like I said, they’re just other race car drivers I’m out there competing with.”

Ganassi and Sabates have both said they want to bring Larson along slowly, but his youthful expectations are more elevated than his bosses.

“Chip and Felix are both realistic with their goals as well as me, and theirs might be lower than mine,” Larson said. “But mine are just to be competitive each week and finish in the top 12 or 15 of the race, win Rookie of the Year and make the Chase.

“I don’t think anything could have worked out better for me. I couldn’t have caught any better break. I’m just really thankful and really to do the best job I can.”

Graham Rahal looks to repeat winning performance at Mid-Ohio

Phoenix International Raceway - Day 1
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Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. But for Verizon IndyCar Series driver Graham Rahal, his heart will always be in Mid-Ohio.

That’s both the middle of the Buckeye State, where he grew up in the shadow of the capital city of Columbus, as well as – more importantly – Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, 50 miles north in Lexington, Ohio.

Mid-Ohio was where Rahal watched his father, Bobby, race (best career showing there were a pair of third-place finishes), qualify, practice and test.

Mid-Ohio was where the younger Rahal learned a great deal of not only how to drive a race car, but more importantly, how to be a race car drive both inside and outside the cockpit.

If Rahal had a dollar for every time he dreamed about or fantasized about winning an IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio, he could probably own the track now.

Next to winning the Indianapolis 500, winning an IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio was right at the top of the younger Rahal’s bucket list – which he finally achieved in emotional fashion last year.

(Photo courtesy Chris Jones/IndyCar)
Graham Rahal celebrates in the winner’s circle at Mid-Ohio last year. (Photo courtesy Chris Jones/IndyCar)

Now, Rahal returns to Mid-Ohio to try and make it to the winner’s circle two years in a row in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (2 p.m. ET on CNBC/re-aired at 5:30 p.m. ET the same day on NBCSN).

“Mid-Ohio is home to me,” the younger Rahal said in a media release. “I grew up at the track and spent so many days there as a kid.

“Watching races there, being a part of it, seeing and loving what it’s all about is a big part of who I am. The way it all came together last year, every aspect of it made it perfect for me. Having the Buckeye helmet and gear, having my entire family there – which never happens, ever, since everyone is spread out – and having the crowd support, to have that sort of experience makes it impossible to tell anyone how much it means to me.

“The sense of accomplishment for me is so great. Everyone knows this but I love Ohio. I’m very proud to be from Ohio and that event means so much to me. To win it is a career accomplishment that I will never forgot or take for granted. It means just as much to me now as it did then. To me it’s one of the highlights of my lifetime, and definitely the most meaningful win of my career. I sure hope it happens again.”

Prior to last year’s win, Rahal’s best IndyCar finish at his home track was fifth in 2014.

(He previously won one other time at Mid-Ohio: at 16 years old became the youngest driver to ever win the SCCA National Formula Atlantic Championship Runoffs in 2005.)

Rahal’s only other IndyCar top-10 at his home track was eighth in 2009, when he drove for Newman-Haas-Lanigan Racing (he’s now in his fourth season with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing).

And even though he’d leave the 2.258-mile, 13-turn natural terrain road course time after time without the checkered flag, Rahal was determined to one day do it – and he did just that on August 2, 2015.

Rahal drove his Steak ‘n Shake/Maxim sponsored Honda to the winner’s circle, leading one-fourth (23 laps) of the 90-lap event, taking the lead for the first and only time of the day on Lap 68 and holding on the rest of the way.

“We had to rally last year,” Rahal recalled. “We started 13th which wasn’t great. We should have qualified better than that as our pace was certainly better than that.

“We ended up getting up to the top three on pure pace then I was held up in traffic. I said over the radio that I wanted to pit. I like to think about strategy a lot as a driver, which is the way my dad was. I knew that with the strategy we were running, we were in the window to pit, I knew I was getting held up so I made the call and told them I was coming in.

“It happened to go yellow right as we came in, which was absolutely perfect. It worked out great for us. … There was so much pride involved in that day. It’s hard for me to explain the feelings that I had to people. It was a great moment in my life and I just hope it carries over and we see a lot of support this year.”

Sunday will be Rahal’s ninth IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio, but there will be a definite change in the aura from last year. He came into and left the track ranked No. 2 in the series standings, earning his second win of the season.

That’s not the case this year.

Rahal and his team have had strong showings for the most part, but have struggled in their quest for the winner’s circle (none), and even podium finishes (just two in the first 11 races).

Firestone 600 - Practice

Even worse, they’re mid-pack in the series standings (11th), 140 points behind points leader Simon Pagenaud. On the flip side, Rahal is only eight points out of seventh place (occupied by Alexander Rossi), and just 52 points behind fifth-ranked Josef Newgarden (344).

Overall, Rahal has five top-five finishes and a per-race finishing average of a respectable 9.4. That includes finishes on permanent road courses of second and third at Barber and Road America, as well as street course runs of fourth at Indianapolis (Grand Prix) and Belle Isle Race 1.

But he also has six finishes between 11th and 16th (twice), including disappointing showings in the season’s last two races – at Iowa (16th) and Toronto (13th). He also struggled in street courses at St. Petersburg (16th), Long Beach (15th) and Belle Isle Race 2 (11th).

That’s why a little home cooking back in Mid-Ohio may be just what Rahal needs to get back on track and make a late season surge upward in the rankings.

“We have certainly had an up and down season, and are in need of a good result this weekend in a big way,” Rahal said. “It’s exciting to go back as the defending champion, but we want to do that again year in and year out. We just have to focus on the task at hand, and hopefully we can pull it off.”

Rahal may have an ace up his sleeve. Of 20 drivers that took part in an open test at Mid-Ohio on July 21, Rahal was the fastest Honda-powered driver.

“The test was good,” Rahal said. “We were focused on getting to the mileage limit on our Honda engine, which we successfully did.

“Now we turn our attention to finding little bits of speed we will need to be quick come this weekend. I hope we can get the balance a bit better, but it didn’t feel far off on the test day.

“I expect that we should be very competitive and our performance from the other road courses should carry over to Mid-Ohio. The tricky part is that everyone is competitive nowadays. There are no longer any bad teams or non-contenders. So I fully expect it to be a patented tight IndyCar race weekend and I hope the Steak ‘n Shake team can come out on top again!”

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NASCAR’s 2017 start times are out; worth keeping in mind for IndyCar times

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JULY 02: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Detroit Genuine Parts Ford, and Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, lead the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway on July 2, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
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So one of the fun things you can begin deducing about 2017 calendars is tea leaves you get from other series.

Today, NASCAR has released the start times of 2017 races for Sprint Cup (title sponsor to change), Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races.

And it’s with that knowledge that we post the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Xfinity weekend dates, channels and start times after NBC takes over the coverage, below through what would be the projected end of the Verizon IndyCar Series season:

Sprint Cup

7/1

Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway

NBC

7:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

7/8

Kentucky Speedway

NBCSN

7:30 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

7/16

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

NBCSN

3 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

7/23

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

NBC

3 p.m.

IMS / SiriusXM

7/30

Pocono Raceway

NBCSN

3 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

8/6

Watkins Glen International

NBCSN

3 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

8/13

Michigan International Speedway

NBCSN

3 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

8/19

Bristol Motor Speedway

NBC

7:30 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

9/3

Darlington Raceway

NBCSN

6 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

9/9

Richmond International Raceway

NBCSN

7:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

9/17

Chicagoland Speedway

NBCSN

3 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

9/24

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

NBCSN

2 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

Xfinity

6/30

Daytona International Speedway

NBCSN

7:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

7/7

Kentucky Speedway

NBCSN

8 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

7/15

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

NBCSN

4 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

7/22

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

NBCSN

3:30 p.m.

IMS / SiriusXM

7/29

Iowa Speedway

NBC

3:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

8/5

Watkins Glen International

NBCSN

2 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

8/12

Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course

NBCSN

3:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

8/18

Bristol Motor Speedway

NBCSN

7:30 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

8/27

Road America

NBC

3 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

9/2

Darlington Raceway

NBCSN

3:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

9/8

Richmond International Raceway

NBCSN

7:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

9/16

Chicagoland Speedway

NBCSN

3:30 p.m.

MRN / SiriusXM

9/23

Kentucky Speedway

NBCSN

8 p.m.

PRN / SiriusXM

The only IndyCar race dates publicly announced yet for July 2017 are Iowa (July 9) and Toronto (July 16).

If each weekend stayed identical to this year for the July through September IndyCar races, you’d have these 2017 dates:

  • Iowa, July 9
  • Toronto, July 16
  • Mid-Ohio, July 30
  • Pocono, August 20
  • Watkins Glen, September 3
  • Sonoma, September 17

That doesn’t factor in the possibility of any additional race – say maybe one at Gateway Motorsports Park, which could be a possibility to fall in the August gap between Mid-Ohio or Pocono.

But of those remaining rounds, note that Iowa would again fall on the Sunday after a Cup race and have no live racing TV competition.

With both of the New Hampshire and Pocono start times at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN on Sunday, July 16 and July 30, respectively, it’s possible IndyCar’s start times at Toronto and Mid-Ohio could be moved forward to finish ahead of the NASCAR start time.

Alternatively, a later start time would likely produce a head-to-head TV conflict, prompt a channel change and likely require an NBCSN replay after the NASCAR race – as has been done on a couple occasions the last two years.

The conundrum is that over the last couple years, later start times closer to primetime have helped IndyCar’s numbers on NBCSN, rather than earlier start times.

With Bristol a Saturday night race on August 19, that opens up a Sunday timeslot, again without the potential of a head-to-head TV conflict.

Darlington as a night race would follow any potential IndyCar race if Watkins Glen continues in the same time frame and date.

And Chicagoland, the Chase opener for 2017, could fall ahead of a late afternoon IndyCar finale at Sonoma.

Again, there’s a lot of theoreticals here, but the late-ish start times for NASCAR races to 3 p.m. ET on Sunday for potential IndyCar weekends could produce the potential to avoid head-to-head conflicts where you have both Cup and IndyCar running at the same time.

We’ll know more, most likely, once IndyCar releases its 2017 schedule – which is projected for August.

Handful of changes on Road America’s IMSA entry list

ELKHART LAKE, WI - AUGUST 10:  The #62 Ferrari of Giancarlo Fisichella and Pierre Kaffer is shown in action during the IMSA Tudor Series race at Road America on August 10, 2014 in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The final four IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races will take place over August, September and October following a run of three events in four weekends in July.

The first of those, the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase, takes place on August 7 at Road America and will see the resumption of all four classes back in action after Lime Rock Park did not see the Prototype class.

There’s a handful of changes in the 44-car entry list for the two-hour, 40-minute race:

Prototype

  • Sean Rayhall is back in his usual DeltaWing entry after running one of Starworks Motorsport’s PC cars at Lime Rock Park.

Prototype Challenge

  • Replacing Rayhall in Starworks’ No. 7 Aviation American Gin Oreca FLM09 with Jose Gutierrez co-driving is Gustavo Yacaman, back for his first start in IMSA this year.
  • BAR1 Motorsports is back to two cars with Bruno Junqueira also set for his IMSA return; the Brazilian joins Matt McMurry in the Brian Alder led-team’s No. 20 Gas Monkey Energy entry with Johnny Mowlem moving to the No. 26 Southwest Funding/Top 1 Oil car co-driven by Don Yount.

GT Le Mans

  • No changes in class but the No. 68 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GTE will be withdrawn (only confirmed for Petit Le Mans).

GT Daytona

  • Add a second WeatherTech Porsche 911 GT3 R for David MacNeil and Gunnar Jeannette, the No. 77 car the third for Alex Job Racing at WeatherTech’s home race.
  • The No. 80 Lone Star Racing Dodge Viper GT3-R of Dan Knox and Mike Skeen makes its second 2016 appearance, first since Road America.
  • Sven Mueller is the latest co-driver of Black Swan Racing’s No. 540 Porsche alongside Tim Pappas, after Andy Pilgrim (Lime Rock) and Nick Catsburg (opening races of the year).
  • Subtract the No. 11 Change Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3, listed but won’t race.

All told it will be a 42-car field (8 P, 9 PC, 9 GTLM, 16 GTD) for one of the larger IMSA fields this year.

Mid-Ohio could be pivotal for Power, Pagenaud in championship battle

Simon Pagenaud, left, and Will Power
(Photos courtesy IndyCar)
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Will Power is closing in and may be ready to overtake Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud not only on the racetrack, but also in the Verizon IndyCar Series point standings.

Power, who has three wins and one runner-up finish in his last four starts, comes into Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio just 47 points behind Pagenaud, who has led the standings since after the second race of the season (Phoenix).

That he is so close to Pagenaud is almost incredulous, given that Power missed the season-opening race at St. Petersburg due to an inner-ear infection that was initially thought to be a potential concussion.

Missing an entire race worth of points (maximum of 54 points) is hard for any driver to bounce back from, but Power and his team have used that missed race to further heighten their motivation to win a second championship in the last three seasons.

“After a bit of a slow start this season, the No. 12 Verizon Chevy team has built a lot of momentum in the middle part of the season and we’ll look to keep it going at Mid-Ohio,” Power said in a media release.

And while Pagenaud won’t give up his own quest for his first IndyCar title without a fight, how he and Power emerge from Sunday’s race at Mid-Ohio — only four races remain after that — could potentially lay the groundwork to determine which driver ultimately winds up winning the championship.

“We’ve gotten ourselves into the championship fight, but it’s still a little early to be counting points,” Power said. “We just need to keep doing what we have been and let the points manage themselves.”

On paper, Pagenaud has a slight edge at the 2.258-mile natural terrain road course in Lexington, Ohio: five starts, three podium finishes (including a runner-up in the 2013 race at Mid-Ohio).

“I always look forward to competing at Mid-Ohio,” Pagenaud said. “It’s a classic event for the Verizon IndyCar series.

“I’ve been fortunate to have some success there over the years in both IndyCar and sports cars.”

Power, meanwhile, has an equally respectable record at Mid-Ohio: seven starts, two podiums (both runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2012) and two poles.

“I really enjoy racing at Mid-Ohio,” Power said. “The natural terrain creates a fast, yet technical, circuit.

“It is not a track that I’ve won at before, so this would be a great time to do that and we’ll need to work hard to accomplish that.”

Added Pagenaud, “The No. 22 team tested there last week (July 21) and we were pleased at the end of the day. We went through our list of tests to experiment, which will lead us in a good direction for the race weekend. We’re all ready to go.”

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