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Friday 5: Philadelphia school relishes its bond with Kyle Larson

When a student at the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia recently struggled with his lap times on one of the school’s simulators, a call was made to Kyle Larson, the hottest driver in NASCAR.

“He picked the phone right up,” Anthony Martin, the school’s founder, told NBC Sports. “Kyle talked to him about how to negotiate the turns at that particular track.

“When I tell you (Larson) is intimately involved in the school, he is intimately involved in the racing school.”

Larson’s connection to the school dates to 2018 and has made him a favorite among the students. They see someone willing to help them as opposed to the person who uttered a racial slur during an iRacing event in April 2020 that cost Larson his Chip Ganassi Racing ride and led to a NASCAR suspension for the rest of the season.

Larson’s return to the sport this year with Hendrick Motorsports has unlocked the potential many saw in him as a driver. He’s won three races — including the past two — and placed first or second in each of the last five Cup races.

But it’s what he does with Martin’s students that means the most to them. Larson donated two simulators (Chevrolet donated two others) to the school. He’s had multiple Zoom sessions with students. Larson ran the June 2 eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race with a paint scheme designed by one of the school’s former students. Shortly before that race, Larson held another Zoom with the group.

Celebrities Visit Build - September 27, 2019

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 27: Founder and Executive Director at Urban Youth Racing School Anthony Martin, visits the Build Series to discuss Urban Youth Racing School and the documentary series about the school, at Build Studio on September 27, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)

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“The students absolutely love him,” Martin said. “A lot of the urban, inner-city kids are into basketball and football and things like that. So we equate (Larson speaking to the them) almost like a James Harden or a LeBron James (doing so). … The fact that we can pick up the phone and call Kyle and he’ll answer the phone and answer the questions, that’s very, very powerful.”

Martin says that Larson inspires his students, who range in age from 8-18. Martin notes the students have looked beyond Larson’s use of a racial slur last year.

He cites Jysir Fisher, the student who joined Larson in Victory Lane at Dover in 2019, as an example.

“When this happened, Kyle came to the racing school and Jysir Fisher came in to meet with him,” Martin said. “Jysir Fisher asked Kyle straight forward, ‘Why did you say it?’ ”

That started a discussion between the two. Fisher told CBS News in October that their talk gave him “reassurance” he could “still look up to (Larson) and trust him.”

Martin said the school’s students had a similar attitude toward Larson.

“I don’t think they looked at Kyle as a potential racist,” Martin said. “ … I didn’t get that from one student here at the racing school. I think, because of the culture we’re in, the music and things like that, I think that because Kyle — of him working with them and seeing how accessible that he was — I think they knew he made a mistake. I think that they were accepting he made a mistake.”

Martin said Larson plans to do more for the school and students. He’s scheduled to be part of a go-kart event with other Cup drivers in August to help raise funds for the school.

It follows what Larson told NBC Sports before the season he planned to do this year.

“There are a lot of people within this sport … I’ve met and I think I’ve made good impressions on, but it’s people I’ve hurt outside the industry that I hope to show everybody who I really am,” he said.

While the pandemic has kept the students from attending a race, Martin plans to have about 30 students attend the June 27 Cup race at Pocono Raceway.

The school, which was founded in 1998, introduces minority students to motorsports. A 10-week course meets on Saturdays. Five weeks are focused on in-class training focused on STEM education and studying the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes, a race for Black drivers from 1924-36. The final five weeks is on-track training with go-karts. A more advanced class meets on Saturdays for 22 weeks.

2. Where to put the number?

One of this season’s big debates has been about NASCAR’s continued examination of where to put the car number.

Last year’s All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway saw the number moved closer to the rear wheel on Cup cars, providing more room on the door for sponsors.

The numbers will remain in their standard location on the door for Sunday night’s All-Star Race (8 p.m. ET on FS1).

Denny Hamlin has been vocal on social media about moving the car number forward, putting it closer to the front wheel. He notes that would allow a company to put its name and logo together instead of potentially splitting them if the number was closer to the rear wheel.

Dave Alpern, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, said the team has heard from some sponsors about what they prefer.

From the team’s standpoint,” he said, “here’s what we care about: What do the fans think and what do our partners think? We personally don’t care where the number goes. We just want all the constituents to be happy.

“I will say generally people are resistant to change in a lot of cases. I can use the example of when we ran the All-Star Race last year. I can tell you a couple of our partners were vehemently against (the car number being moved) before we ran it. During the race, I started getting texts going, ‘That car looks fantastic. It looks really good.’ A couple of them changed their mind.

“That’s not to say that’s the right answer or the right place. It’s just an example of often you think this is not great until you see it and then you go you know what? That’s actually pretty good.”

NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE - JULY 15: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, races Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 UniFirst Chevrolet, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Light Apple Ford, during the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15, 2020 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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Dan Florness, president and CEO of Fastenal, which sponsors Chris Buescher’s car, says: “I don’t know if I have a strong opinion on the placement of the number on the side of the car. I know the folks at Roush (Fenway Racing) have done a really nice job of having great paint schemes, just having great looks to the car, changing it up every so often, and making it a fun car for us to participate in.”

Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing, says a key is what does the sport want to accomplish if the car number is moved.

Herb Thomas - 1951 NASCAR Cup Champion

DARLINGTON, SC September 3, 1951: Herb Thomas races his Hudson Hornet past the Nash of Shorty York on his way to winning the Southern 500 NASCAR Cup race at Darlington Raceway, just one of seven Cup events he won on his way to the Cup championship. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group

“I think that when we look at the number location it’s not necessarily through just the lens of sponsorship,” he said. “I think we look at it through the lens of what’s the best thing for the sport?”

Newmark said the team has examined potential ideas if the number is moved.

“We’ve actually had fun here internally moving the number around, playing around with it and how can you come up with the most compelling look and feel of the car,” he said.

“We’ve actually gone back and looked at how the numbers have been in the past and, to me, I always think it’s fun to have a link to our lineage and our history because we’re so proud of everything that’s gone on in this sport, so really that’s what we’re looking at.

“We obviously will of course consult with our partners because we want them to be happy with however we lay it out, but, for us, it really is about trying to tie into the tradition of the sport, and we’ll ultimately provide our input to NASCAR along those lines.”

3. Some helpful advice

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ross Chastain credits two former champions with helping him manage his driving style. He’s finished in the top 15 in five of the last six races, scoring top 10s in two of the past three events.

He is well aware of his reputation as being among the more challenging drivers to pass. That goes back to how he raced in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series.

NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway

SONOMA, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 06: Ross Chastain, driver of the #42 Clover Chevrolet, and Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 America’s Tire Ford, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 06, 2021 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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“In those years and those two series, I was pushing the limit on every pass and every lap and every restart,” Chastain said. “Those races are shorter. I felt like clean air was even more keen, especially in the Truck Series like in 2019 and even last year in the Xfinity Series. It was just go. And I really didn’t have any friends.

“I tried to table that and put it aside to start this year, but I still, in those instinctive moments of to block or not, or to pinch a guy or not, or to let him go, I was still making those same moves and I didn’t realize it.

“A few guys sat me down. Kurt (Busch), my teammate, and Joey Logano, we had a good conversation after a race, and it was kind of eye-opening. It was like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to pay it forward here a little bit.’

“So, I’m racing anywhere from eighth to 15th now, and we want to be a little bit better. But our group there, coming from the back, guys point me by, and I point guys by and it’s crazy. So, for me, it’s actually been really eye-opening to work with these guys and like, ‘Oh let’s both go faster.’ We’re still racing.

“Even though I told myself I was going to be better, I wasn’t until I really had honest conversations with some of my competitors and a teammate and realized there’s a lot better way to go about it.”

4. When will NASCAR get the F1 treatment?

The Formula 1 docuseries “Drive to Survive” on Netflix has earned praise for how it shows the inner workings of the sport and personalities of key figures. It’s made some NASCAR fans wonder why a similar all-access program couldn’t be done for NASCAR on such a platform.

Brian Herbst, NASCAR senior vice president Media & Productions, said Thursday that such a program is an “initiative that is taken seriously here at NASCAR.”

Herbst said the impact of the F1 series on that viewership has been evident.

“I do think the Netflix show has drawn a more casual fan or audience to F1,” he staid.

“We’ve made strides in that space. We had the all-access show with Discovery and MotorTrend in 2020, we had the Netflix sitcom (‘The Crew’) in 2021 … and we will have the Bubba Wallace (Netflix documentary by next year). We were with all the teams (Wednesday) talking about making sure that we as an industry know how important it is for our drivers and our teams and our industry to take the helmet off and to kind of tell their story and show their personality on some of these streaming platforms.”

Herbst said that an all-access show on a streaming platform can take six to nine months from filming to airing it. NASCAR has not announced any such plans for this season at this time.

5. Rally time?

There are 20 Cup points races left in the season. While Hendrick Motorsports has won the past four races, can new winners emerge in these final 20 races? Points leader Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have yet to win this season.

Looking at the last 20 races in the past three seasons (60 total races), Harvick and Hamlin have combined to win 19 of those events, nearly one-third in that stretch. Harvick has 12 wins; Hamlin has seven.

Here is a look at the drivers who have won races in the last 20 events of the past three seasons:

12 - Kevin Harvick

9 - Chase Elliott

7 - Denny Hamlin

6 - Kyle Busch

5 - Brad Keselowski

4 - Martin Truex Jr.

3 - Kurt Busch

3 - Joey Logano

2 - Erik Jones

2 - Ryan Blaney

1 - Cole Custer

1 - Austin Dillon

1 - William Byron

1 - Alex Bowman

1 - Justin Haley

1 - Aric Almirola

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