Kyle Larson has solid outing in first Brickyard 400

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INDIANAPOLIS – Jeff Gordon gave himself an early 43rd birthday present with Sunday’s Brickyard 400 win.

Kyle Larson also gave himself an early birthday present – his 22nd will be Thursday – with a solid seventh-place finish in his first Brickyard.

“It was a good day for us,” said Larson, the highest-finishing rookie in the race. “We were a top-10 car the whole race. Had some good restarts there for most of the race. Then that last one we had to restart on the outside and lost a spot. We lined up fifth but Denny (Hamlin) got to third.

“But still a good day. The Target car was really good. We were just too tight on short runs, then we just kind of would build tighter, looser off. Everybody was struggling with grip out there.”

For Larson to be at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on what became a historic day – Jeff Gordon’s record-breaking fifth Brickyard win – was exciting for him both as a fellow race car driver, as well as a fan.

“It was fun, cool to finish in the top 10 at the Brickyard,” Larson said. “To see Jeff Gordon win is pretty special. It’s kind of like Junior winning the 500 this year. It was a really good day for everybody and all the fans, too. So, I’m happy about it.”

His seventh-place outing was Larson’s second straight top-10 (he finished third two weeks ago at Loudon), making it appear he’s past his three-race rough stretch before New Hampshire, when he finished 28th at Sonoma, 40th at Kentucky and 36th at Daytona.

“I think everywhere you have to make sure it’s an important one to try to make the Chase because it’s getting closer and closer every week,” Larson said. “We can’t make any more mistakes or have any more bad luck.

“Every track is important to us right now. Now we get to go to Pocono next week where we finished fifth before. “(We’ve) set fifth as a goal, but hopefully we’ll try to do better.”

While Larson enjoyed the aura of the most legendary race track on earth, he tried to approach it without any special preconceptions.

“It was kind of just like any other race,” he said. “But restarts were definitely intense, just like they are everywhere. Inside lane was definitely the dominant one.

“For the most part if you were on the inside row, you were going to pass a couple cars. So, yeah, just being aggressive to try to gain as much as you could on restarts because it was really hard to pass once we got going. It’s frustrating that it is so hard to pass, but it makes you better at hitting your marks.”

With other drivers coming into the media center, Larson was asked one last question, wondering what his opinion can be done to the current crop of NASCAR cars to make them even better.

Not skipping a beat – nor overlooking his dirt track and sprint car roots – Larson deadpanned, “Cover it with dirt and put some wings on top.”

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(Updated) NHRA shocker: Englishtown ceases drag racing operations immediately, cancels NHRA Summernationals

Photo courtesy NHRA
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If put in baseball terms, Wednesday morning’s news from the NHRA is comparable to Yankee Stadium closing down for good.

One of the most popular and longest-running race tracks on the NHRA national event circuit — Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey — announced in a statement that “it will no longer host any drag racing events at its facility, effective immediately. This includes the 49th Annual NHRA Summernationals, scheduled to take place this June.”

This is massive — and terrible news — for NHRA fans, particularly those on the East Coast, as the track more commonly known simply as “Englishtown” has long been a destination point for fans in the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland area for decades. That not only includes NHRA national events, but also local bracket racing at the track.

Few details on the decision to stop all drag racing events are known. However, the track has long struggled being landlocked and unable to expand its runoff area for cars that have problems stopping under their own power. That is especially problematic for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, which are the most powerful cars in the sport and, due to the 10,000 horsepower they produce, often need longer stopping distances.

NHRA Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed in a crash at Old Bridge Raceway on June 21, 2008, when his car was unable to stop in the runoff area and collided with a portable crane past the runoff area.

NHRA spokesperson Jessica Hatcher told NBC Sports in an email Wednesday morning that the sanctioning body will not look to find a replacement venue for Englishtown on the 2018 racing schedule.

As a result, the 2018 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule will shrink from 24 to 23 going forward with Englishtown’s departure.

” ‘Stunned’ is the perfect word to describe how we are all feeling right now,” Hatcher said. “For 2018, we are focusing on the remaining 23 events and do not foresee any additional changes to the schedule.”

UPDATE: Hatcher reached out again to NBC Sports later Wednesday afternoon with an addendum that could be promising for race fans in other markets: “Upon hearing the news about the Englishtown track, we’ve received a significant level of interest from other track operators about hosting a national event in 2018.  We’re not sure if this is possible for 2018, but we’re definitely looking into it, if not for 2018, then perhaps for 2019.”

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in a media release, “NHRA drag racing events have been held at the track in Englishtown for almost 50 years. The Summernationals have played an important part of our heritage and we hope that fans in the area will try to make it to another of our events.

“Our focus remains on making the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series a memorable experience for our fans, racers, sponsors, partners and tracks.”

The nearest venues to Englishtown that will host NHRA events this season are Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, Pennsylvania (105 miles west of Englishtown) and New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire (310 miles northeast).

The Napp family, which owns Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, issued a statement that the facility will remain open and continue business as usual going forward — with the exception of eliminating all drag racing events, both national and local.

“Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, the Napp family owned and operated business announced today a reorganization of the company’s business operations,” the statement said. “To achieve this goal, Raceway Park will no longer conduct quarter mile or eighth mile drag racing events effective immediately.

“Raceway Park will retain and use the ‘stadium’ portion of the facility including the VIP hospitality tower and grandstands and continue most of its operations including the spring and fall auto swap meets, numerous car shows, both motocross racing and practice, kart racing, as well as drifting, a full schedule of road course activities, mud runs, monster truck shows, musical concerts, & festival events and more. The long standing Old Bridge Township Airport, owned and operated by Raceway Park will also continue to operate as normal.”

From a driver’s perspective, veteran NHRA racer Shawn Langdon, who is switching from a long career in Top Fuel to Funny Car this season for Kalitta Motorsports, won in Top Fuel at Englishtown in 2013 and laments the decision to drop drag racing there.

“It really caught me by surprise because I had not heard a thing about that,” Langdon said. “It’s unfortunate because that place has such rich history and so many great things have come out of that race in the past. It was a track that meant a lot to the Kalitta family and with Scott. They always wanted to win one for Scott. We’d have loved to have the opportunity to go back to the track and win that race for Scott.”