Strong finishes are quickly becoming the rule, not the exception for Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson

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It’s quickly gotten to the point where it’s not a surprise that Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson winds up with a top-10 finish in almost every race.

Rather, it’s almost becoming expected from the Elk Grove, Calif. native.

After finishing 38th in the season-opening Daytona 500, 20th at Phoenix and 19th at Las Vegas, Larson has two top-five and two other top-10 in the last five races.

Broken down, he was 10th at Bristol, runner-up at Fontana (after winning the Nationwide Series race there the day before), fifth at Fort Worth and eighth Saturday night at Darlington. The only blemish during that five-race stretch was a 27th-place showing at Martinsville three weeks ago.

“We have been good every week,” Larson said. “Every week I feel like we have had great speed. Our car has been in the top 10, I feel, in most races.

“Martinsville was probably our worst one and that’s a lot of it to do with me. I think we have been doing a great job. The first couple of races we made some mistakes, but now it seems like we have kind of got some momentum and figuring things out and the races have been going smoother for us.

“We have been getting solid finishes so we just have to keep that little streak going and just be consistent. So far, there have been a lot of winners so you have to put yourself in position for later in the season if the 16 fill up and you don’t have a win. I feel like we should get a win here shortly.”

Corresponding with those outstanding finishes for the 21-year-old rookie driver are how he’s quietly climbed upward in the Sprint Cup standings.

After leaving Daytona 35th in the rankings, he’s progressively moved up each week, to 14th-place after Darlington.

And that’s after wrecking his primary car in practice and being forced to go to a backup car.

Impressive indeed.

“I was really confident going into tonight,” Larson said after Saturday’s race. “I started the race off so loose and just had to hang on for a couple runs and Shine got the car tightened up the car for me and we were able to run I thought top‑10 or ‑12 speeds.

“Finally got up there and then I got in the wall a couple times and had to pull the fenders back out and drive back up there.  We had four tires at the end when a lot of people had two, so I was pretty excited about that.

“The restarts just didn’t really work out for me that well. I was 12th the first restart and got to 10th and got to 8th. I finally had the restart in that last one in 8th, I was going to be in a good spot but we just stacked up on the top. Still ended up 8th, but all in all it was a good Saturday for us. Friday was terrible, but my team worked hard.”

Although Larson is keeping a close eye on where he’s at in the Sprint Cup standings, he’s also keeping an extremely sharp eye on where he is in the Rookie-of-theYear rankings.

With his top-10 finish at Darlington, he extended his lead in the ROY standings, as well.

“My goal was always to win the Rookie-of-the-Year so it hasn’t changed yet,” Larson said. “We have put ourselves in position to win that so far. I pay attention to the rookie points and right now we are leading it.

“I definitely pay attention to where Austin (Dillon) is at as well as Justin Allgaier and the other rookies just because I want to win that bad, so just working hard to do that.  Austin is really good at finishing races and being consistent in getting his car better throughout each run so it makes me work hard to do that also.”

Dillon isn’t the only fellow driver Larson is keeping track of. There’s the budding rivalry between himself and fellow Sprint Cup driver Kyle Busch, and given the quick success in the Nationwide Series this season for two-time winner Chase Austin, Larson is eager to build a good-natured Sprint Cup career-long rivalry with him soon, as well.

“I don’t even call me and Kyle (Busch) a rivalry, we are just racing each other each week and want to beat each other,” Larson said. “It’s not like a bad rivalry or anything like that.

“Chase (Elliott) does an amazing job in a race car. He has been quick every race so far this season. He seems like he gets better and better each week. He is going to win a couple of more times this year and hopefully with us both being young we are going to be racing and battling each other for the rest of our careers.

“Hopefully we will be doing it up front in the Cup series. He is with a great organization over there with Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsports. I’ve got good stuff over at Chip Ganassi Racing too, so hopefully we will be duking it out for a long time.”

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Bottas feels at home at Mercedes as a challenger, not No. 2

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) Valtteri Bottas feels like he finally belongs at Mercedes, and that is not as a support driver to Lewis Hamilton.

The Finnish driver has exceeded expectations since joining from Williams as an emergency replacement for Nico Rosberg, who dramatically retired days after winning last year’s Formula One championship.

“I feel very much part of the team, I feel I can definitely perform at my best level,” Bottas said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix. “(There is) plenty more to come.”

The widely held perception was that Bottas, who had never won a race before this season, was clearly arriving as the No. 2 behind Hamilton, a three-time F1 champion.

Yet at the halfway point of the 20-race season, Bottas is in third place overall, 22 points behind Hamilton and 23 behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. That puts him within touching distance.

Bottas won in Russia and Austria, and finished second in Canada, Azerbaijan and Britain. With four straight podium finishes, he has good momentum for the Hungarian GP, the last race before a month-long summer break.

If not for his failure to finish the Spanish GP in May, Bottas could be even closer to Hamilton and Vettel.

“I feel like I am getting up to speed now. In a way I hope there wasn’t a break,” Bottas said Thursday. “I always set targets higher. I didn’t expect myself to be behind (Hamilton) all the time. I’ve shown it is possible to battle and show my skills.”

Asked if he thinks he can win the title, the 27-year-old Bottas says “everything is wide open,” adding “I believe I can fight for the pole (position) here.”

The twisting nature of the 4.4-kilometer (2.7-mile) Hungaroring circuit may favor Ferrari more than Mercedes, however.

Mercedes struggled at this season’s Monaco GP, which is a similarly tight-turning track where overtaking is much harder. Vettel won in Monaco from pole, while Bottas was fourth for Mercedes and Hamilton managed only seventh spot.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Monaco,” Bottas said. “I think it will be a good test for our car, we’re expecting a close battle.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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Formula 1’s final race before the summer break takes place this weekend with the Hungarian Grand Prix from the Hungaroring in Budapest.

It’s a busy time of year and a highly important weekend on the calendar, with the two championship combatants only separated by one point and all the silly season talk about 2018 heating up – particularly with the two-day young driver test set to run on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week after the race.

And with the confirmation the Halo device is set to be introduced next year, what are the drivers thoughts on that?

All that makes for ideal timing of this weekend’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass with Will Buxton checking in from the ground in Hungary.

Here’s the pre-race episode, below.

Drivers divided over F1 halo cockpit device

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) The “halo” cockpit head protection system that will be mandatory on Formula One cars next season protects drivers from the potentially fatal impact of objects like a loose wheel traveling at up to 225 kph (140 mph).

Motor sport’s governing body, FIA, has been looking at ways to improve cockpit protection and limit the risk of head injuries, after French F1 driver Jules Bianchi died in July 2015 and British IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died a month later.

“The halo will become the strongest part of the car, a secondary wall structure (along with the helmet) and can take about 15 times the car’s weight,” FIA safety director Laurent Mekies said at a news conference Thursday. “We know that our resistance against small objects has stepped up.”

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY – JULY 27: FIA Race Director, Charlie Whiting and Laurent Mekies, FIA Deputy Race Director and Safety Director talk in a press conference regarding the halo device during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 27, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Drivers remain divided over the move.

The halo design forms a semi-circular barrier around the driver’s helmet in the front half of the cockpit, protecting against debris without completely closing the cockpit. When first tested ahead of 2016, drivers were split as to whether they liked it with some – such as three-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton – criticizing it on aesthetic grounds.

Tests were done from the front and side of the car with a loose wheel weighing 20 kilograms. Researchers took in various factors: car-to-car contact, car-to-environment contact and external objects, such as a wheel. They also analyzed real-life accidents, including those with fatalities.

In terms of manufacturing design, FIA race director Charlie Whiting said “it’s going to be a one-part (piece) made by one company, so they all have to fit the same one.”

The device is expected to weigh about 8 kilograms, Whiting said. The manufacturer has yet to be decided, although several companies have been contacted. Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas both expressed concern that the extra weight will impact driving, particularly on cornering speeds.

Other safety devices were considered before the halo was approved by the FIA last week.

At the British Grand Prix two weeks ago, a transparent open canopy system constructed using polycarbonate, and known as the “shield,” was tested at Silverstone by four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel.

The Ferrari driver was critical.

“I wasn’t a big fan of the shield,” Vettel said. “For sure you need to get used to the halo, but at least it didn’t impact on the vision.”

Bianchi died at the age of 25, several months after massive head injuries sustained at the Japanese GP in October 2014.

Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka occurred at the end of the race in rainy, gloomy conditions, when his Marussia team car slid off the track and ploughed into a crane picking up the Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil, who had crashed at the same spot one lap earlier.

Wilson died in August 2015, a day after being hit on the helmet by debris from another car at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania.

“We believe (the halo) would have changed dramatically the outcome of the accident,” Mekies said.

Vettel, who emotionally dedicated his 2015 win at Hungary to Bianchi, said the change was justified.

“We would all take it, to help save his life. We can’t turn back the clock,” the German driver said. “But knowing something is there that would help us is stupid to ignore. Overall it’s supposed to help us, so that’s what we should remember.”

While Hamilton and others have been critical of the halo’s appearance, Vettel championed it.

“Times are changing and moving forward,” Vettel said. “It helps us in the car in case something goes very wrong.”

Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is also in favor.

“If we could go back in time and save lives we would all be happy,” the Spanish driver said. “That’s the first and only thing we should talk about. The aesthetics I don’t care too much (about).”

Several drivers disagree.

“Doesn’t look too good,” Renault driver Nico Hulkenberg said. “Not sure that this additional protection is necessary because all the other areas (of safety) are improving.”

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and Haas drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean are also against it.

“I didn’t like the visibility and the thing in front of you, it’s not great,” the 19-year-old Verstappen said. “I don’t think you will lose the wheel very easily (anyway) and when there are parts flying around the car it’s not going to protect you. So I don’t know why we need it.”

Magnussen took a sarcastic tone.

“F1 cars aren’t meant to be ugly. That is the reason that a Ferrari is more exciting than a Mazda,” the Danish driver said. “I think there is a limit where it becomes too safe to be exciting. We could make the cars go 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour and it would be boring.”

Grosjean said “it was a sad day for Formula 1 when it was announced, and I am still against it.”

Sergio Perez wants 2018 F1 contract secured by Spa

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Sergio Perez is keen to swiftly define his Formula 1 future and secure a contract for next season by the time the paddock reconvenes in Belgium at the end of August after the summer break.

Perez has been one of the stand-out drivers in F1 this year, sitting seventh in the drivers’ championship as the leading midfielder behind those racing for Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull.

The Mexican’s future has become a regular talking point during F1’s ‘silly season’, with links to Ferrari being thrown about for 2018 as it mulls over Kimi Raikkonen’s position.

Force India has been punching well above its weight in F1 this year, much to Perez’s delight, and he hopes to have a new contract with the team sorted for next year within the next month.

“I think the team has been moving forwards every year. Although last year we achieved the same position which we have now which is fourth, I think we have consolidated that fourth place,” Perez said.

“I think the team is moving forwards; there is a lot more interest in terms of sponsorship into the team, more investment but it’s not easy to make the next step with the big boys, with the big teams, it’s not easy.

“In terms of my future, I just hope that once I come back to the next race, after the summer break, I can have a new contract.”

When asked if he meant a new contract with Force India, Perez said: “That would be good you know, but you never know what will happen.”