NASCAR: Larson “really confident” of Daytona chances, but wary of Big One

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Kyle Larson’s first Sprint Cup experience at Daytona International Speedway didn’t end well.

With 39 laps to go in February’s season-opening Daytona 500, Larson was taken out in a multi-car pileup that began when fellow rookie Austin Dillon slid up the track and into Larson, who promptly spun out and into oncoming traffic.

This weekend, he’ll be returning to Daytona hoping for a better result in the Coke Zero 400 – preferably, a win that would seal his place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Right now, Larson is within the Chase Grid but not by much. He’s tied for 14th on the Chase Grid with Greg Biffle at 474 points and Clint Bowyer is just one point behind in the 16th-place cutoff.

A victory Saturday night at the 2.5-mile oval throws all that points talk out the window. But in order to contend, Larson knows he has to avoid the mayhem that so often comes with restrictor-plate racing.

“We’re really confident, but at the same time it’s a track where things can go really badly,” said Larson in today’s NASCAR teleconference.

“Just kind of setting goals as every other week, try to finish the race and get a Top-10, and see if we can put ourselves in position to get a win at the end – that would be great.

“The biggest goal is to try and stay out of the Big One, because it’s going to happen. I’m sure there will be one or two of them throughout the race. [We need to] try to stay out of trouble.”

Larson will also be looking to bounce back from a couple of poor results in the last two races.

He was one of the quickest drivers during the Sonoma weekend two weeks ago, but brake and power steering problems during the race relegated him to a 28th-place finish.

Then last weekend at Kentucky, a right-front tire failure sent Larson into the wall at Lap 76 for his first DNF since the aforementioned Daytona 500.

But with the Chip Ganassi Racing team’s relatively solid pace throughout the season, Larson isn’t fretting.

“I think my crew chief [Chris Heroy] said it best – he’d be worried in the last couple years, but now our car has been fast, so he’s not worried at all,” he said.

“That’s good, and gave me some more confidence because I think any other two weekends or having two bad races would be less nerve-racking, but then you go to Daytona where the chances of another bad weekend are high, so it’s easy to get nervous about that.

“We haven’t had many struggles all year, and now we’ve had a couple bad ones. Just got to get back on track.”

Meanwhile, Larson has added another race this summer to his itinerary beyond the Sprint Cup Series. He confirmed today that he would drive a Turner Scott Motorsports entry in the Camping World Truck Series’ July 23 race on the dirt at Eldora Speedway.

“I don’t know if I was supposed to say anything or not about the [Eldora] race,” said Larson, who finished second last year at Eldora to Austin Dillon.

“But yeah, we’re running that race. I’m really excited about that. We’re going to go test here pretty soon and get ready for that one because that’s definitely a race I want to win.  We were close last year, so it’s nice to get to go back and give it another shot.”

Lewis Hamilton receives Daytona 500 invitation from Bubba Wallace

Lewis Hamilton Bubba Wallace
Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images
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Lewis Hamilton is a fan of the new NASCAR Cup Series team formed by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan to field a car for Bubba Wallace.

Will the six-time Formula One champion also be a fan in person at a NASCAR race in the near future?

Wallace is hoping so.

After Hamilton tweeted his support Tuesday morning about the news of a Hamlin-Jordan-Wallace team making its debut with the 2021 season, Wallace responded with a sly invitation to the Daytona 500.

Much would need to be worked out, starting with how much garage and grandstand access would be afforded for a 2021 season opener that likely would occur during a still ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But it would seem fitting given that Hamilton and Wallace have been two of the world’s most outspoken Black athletes about the quest for diversity and racial justice. Hamilton recently reaffirmed his commitment to activism after his donning a Breonna Taylor shirt sparked an FIA inquiry. Time just published a brief piece by Wallace saluting Hamilton as a trailblazer.

The idea of Hamilton attending the NASCAR season opener already had legs, too. The Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 driver has expressed a desire to race the Daytona 500 after he has retired from Formula One.

He was a spectator (with racing legend Mario Andretti) at four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s final Cup race as a full-time in the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In 2011, Hamilton swapped cars with three-time champion Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen International.

Having rubbed shoulders with other racing greats so often, it would seem right for Hamilton — who is one victory from tying Michael Schumacher’s career record and also could tie the F1 record with a seventh championship this season — to spend some time with the greatest basketball player of all time.

Jeff Gordon was flanked by Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton before the 2015 Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).