It’s been a rough start to the season for defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson. Will he turn it around at the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track?
Kyle Larson picked up his first win of 2022 in the second race of the season at Auto Club Speedway. At Las Vegas Motor Speedway one week later, he was a car length away from making it two in a row, and he also captured the Cup points lead.
But since those first three races, it’s been a brutal start to the season for the defending champion. In the last five races, he has three finishes of 29th or worse and just one top 10, a fifth at Richmond Raceway.
He got unlucky with a blown engine at Phoenix Raceway while running in the top 10 all day, but he was also a surprising non-factor at Circuit of the Americas, a race where he finished second a year ago.
Larson now sits 13th in points with an average finish of 19th. The dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway is up next, and it would be an understatement to call dirt track racing his specialty. Will the turnaround start there?
If Larson is able to avoid crashes, he has a good chance of contending for the win. In the race last year, Larson had charged from the back to the top five in first 50 laps, but a crash with Christopher Bell on lap 54 ended his day early.
And yes, last year’s race was dominated by Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Suarez and Joey Logano, drivers that entered the race with almost zero experience on dirt. But they proceeded to dominate only after Larson crashed during his march to the front of the field.
No one has more experience or success on dirt than Larson, and it would hard to bet against him this weekend.
Should NASCAR look into changes for the Next Gen car at short tracks?
The first race at Martinsville Speedway with the Next Gen car ended with a William Byron victory after Byron and Chase Elliott combined to lead all but six laps. And when the race concluded after 403 laps, the consensus was that it was an absolute clunker.
Jeff Gluck’s good race poll had 18.7% of respondents say yes, and the drivers themselves voiced their frustrations about how hard it was to pass. The race also featured zero on-track passes for the lead, just the second time this has happened since the start of the 2016 season.
One possible explanation for the iffy racing was the cold temperatures in Martinsville that night. It was approximately 40 degrees outside, and some drivers theorized that the cold temperatures made aerodynamics and aero push a major factor.
The Next Gen car itself might be to blame as well. The car has seen great success on 1.5-mile tracks and road courses, but it’s possible that the car still needs tweaking for short tracks. After all, Richmond was rather tame until the finish, although that is par for the course for Richmond in the last few years.
If NASCAR were to make changes to the car for the short track races in September and October, altering the horsepower might be the most plausible solution. When NASCAR unveiled its 550-horsepower aerodynamic package for 2019, the races at Martinsville were incredibly lopsided, as winners Brad Keselowski and Truex combined to lead 910 of the 1,000 laps.
The races were bad enough in 2019 to where NASCAR decided to use a 750-horsepower package at Martinsville instead, and the racing improved in 2020 and 2021. But with the Next Gen car, NASCAR has turned to a uniform 670-horsepower package at every race. And given how lackluster the racing was with less horsepower, upping it back to 750 might be the best solution.
However, this change should not be explored until 2023. It is entirely possible that Saturday’s race was primarily impacted by the weather, and thus, it would be a kneejerk reaction to bring about immediate changes. But if the short track races in the playoffs are also drab, it might be time for NASCAR to make a change.
Does Ty Gibbs need to tone down his aggression?
The short answer: Yes.
The long answer: One of the most common sayings in racing is that you shouldn’t dish it out if you can’t take it.
It doesn’t matter that Gibbs and Mayer have history with each other. It doesn’t matter that they were racing for the Dash 4 Cash $100,000 prize on the final lap.
Gibbs has been racing aggressively all season long, even going as far as moving a teammate out of the way on the final lap at Richmond. And in the one moment where someone showed aggression back to him, he picked a fistfight after the race.
Even discounting the negative responses that fans had to the incident, this behavior is not going to make Gibbs any friends in the garage area and on the racetrack. In just the first eight races, he has already had run-ins with Ryan Sieg, John Hunter Nemechek and now Mayer.
Gibbs is only 19, and he already shows tremendous talent for a driver his age. There is still time for him to perfect his craft and blossom into an even better driver.
But for now, he needs to tone down his aggression or at least be more accepting of when drivers are aggressive to him. Because if last Saturday wasn’t a wakeup call, the other drivers will be more than willing to give him one in the upcoming weeks.
Will the Cup race at Bristol be dominated by dirt track specialists, or will we see another surprise winner like last year?
The major players in last year’s Bristol dirt race were a big surprise. After Bell and Larson were eliminated from contention in a crash, it was Logano, Suarez and Truex dominating out front, with Logano holding off a charge from Denny Hamlin in overtime to score his only win of the 2021 season.
Will we see non-dirt specialists dominate at Bristol once again this weekend, or will the dirt guys take back the spotlight?
If all goes according to plan, the drivers with major dirt experience should dominate the race.
For 2022, Bristol added progressive banking to the dirt surface. In 2021, there was a uniform 18-19 degrees of banking. For this year, there will be 16 degrees at the bottom and 18-19 degrees at the top.
The result is that the track should have a closer resemblance to dirt racing this weekend, while last year’s racing resembled a dirt-pavement hybrid.
The Cup Series also has blossoming stars with dirt experience, as Chase Briscoe won his first Cup race at Phoenix Raceway in March and Tyler Reddick nearly earned his first win at Auto Club Speedway in February.
But if the race is going to be dominated by racers that grew up on pavement, the Trackhouse Racing Team duo of Suarez and Ross Chastain might be the biggest dark horses. Suarez had the best race of his Cup career at Bristol dirt in 2021, and if there’s one thing that Chastain has shown in 2022, it’s that he can run well and compete for wins anywhere.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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