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Friday 5: How Mario Andretti sees ‘a lot of myself’ in Kyle Larson

Get an inside look at a chaotic 2021 Southern 500 for Hendrick Motorsports, as Alex Bowman and William Byron find themselves on the playoff bubble along with Kyle Busch after all three wrecked at Darlington.

Few people can appreciate Kyle Larson’s remarkable season more than Mario Andretti, who knows the challenges of racing in different vehicles on different surfaces against different drivers and often ending with the same result. Winning.

“That’s his life,” Andretti told NBC Sports about Larson. “That’s what he loves. I identify with that. That’s the reason I gravitated toward him in a sense of being particularly interested in what he’s doing.

“He’s not the only one that interests me, but he just captured me in a very special way because I see a lot of myself there.”

Andretti, 81, is motorsports royalty. He’s the only driver to win a Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Formula 1 championship. He sees Larson’s passion to race and family support to do so - just as Andretti had when he raced so many different vehicles - as key elements to Larson’s success.

Larson has had a season unlike any other. Among the favorites to claim the Cup title, he’s won one of NASCAR’s crown jewels, the Coca-Cola 600, along with four other points races and the All-Star Race. He’ll look to add to his trophy case with Saturday’s playoff event at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

ChLarson’s year also includes victories in multiple major dirt racing events. He won his second consecutive Chili Bowl Nationals in January. Larson won the Knoxville Nationals, one of the most prestigious sprint car events, in August. He also won the King’s Royal sprint car race in July.

No one has won those events and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same year. This comes after a 2020 season that saw him win 46 of 97 races on dirt.

“Not that I don’t want to be just referenced as the greatest NASCAR driver of all time or the greatest sprint car driver of all time, I want to be known as somebody who could climb into all different types of cars and be great at what they do,” Larson told NBC Sports.

Andretti smiles when hears those words.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Andretti said of Larson’s quest. “It’s not just about trying. ‘OK, I’m going to give it a go.’ “(It’s) win. Win. You have got to win in somebody else’s sandbox at their own game.

“That’s what gives you the ultimate satisfaction. That’s why you do it. That’s what drives you. You need it, that type of motivation. I can see his motivation is the thought process I was giving it.”

That motivation led Larson to drive his car against the wall on the last lap of last weekend’s Southern 500 in an effort to pass Denny Hamlin for the win. It didn’t work, but the move capped the opening playoff race with one of the most exciting final laps of the season.

Larson acknowledged it was a “video game” move but when he explained it afterward, he methodically described how he couldn’t go low because Hamlin was blocking him. So Larson chose to build speed and bounce off the wall.

“Let’s call that a Hail Mary,” Andretti said. “It’s exactly what it was.”

He laughs.

“On the last lap, (Larson) figured, ‘You know what, I’m not going to crash it, but I’m really, really, really going to do something. That it’s either going to work or I’m still going to be second anyway.’ He was not going to throw away second. You could see that for sure.”

As he talks, Andretti laughs again, marveling at Larson’s last-ditch effort to win the race.

That’s what the best do. They make moves few think possible. The moves don’t always work, but when they do, they are unforgettable.

Andretti gave Larson one of the ultimate compliments in racing after Larson won the Chili Bowl in January. Andretti tweeted: “Can’t think of any present driver that’s more of a “Racer” than Kyle Larson.”

Many agree. Larson’s success in multiple forms of racing has led some to compare him to Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Tony Stewart.

“We’ve all been somewhat versatile in different situations and with different opportunities,” Andretti said. “I was feeding (off of) A.J. and Dan Gurney and people like that. Dan Gurney was winning in stock cars … Formula 1 and sports cars. ‘I want to do that.’ That’s really what motivated me.

“Somewhere along the line, I think Kyle connects with all of us that have been crossing over (to other series).”

In a way, it’s nothing new for Larson, who grew up aspiring to be a full-time driver in the World of Outlaws sprint car series. When opportunities arose in NASCAR, he took them but also looked to compete in as many dirt track races as possible.

Goodwood Festival of Speed 2021

CHICHESTER, ENGLAND - JULY 09: Mario Andretti looks on during the Goodwood Festival of Speed at Goodwood on July 09, 2021 in Chichester, England. (Photo by James Bearne/Getty Images)

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Andretti has been a fan of Larson’s for some time. When Larson drove for team owner Chip Ganassi in NASCAR, Ganassi asked Andretti about Larson racing so much on dirt.

“I said, ‘Does he show up on time to drive your car?’” Andretti asked Ganassi.

“Oh yes,” Ganassi told Andretti.

“That’s all you can ask for,” Andretti said.

The point being as long as Larson was fulfilling his duties, Ganassi should let him race other cars.

“As an owner, I couldn’t blame Chip for wanting him to himself,” Andretti said. “For myself, every contract forbid me from doing anything else. I never even bothered to negotiate because I was going to do it anyway.”

With that in mind, Andretti told Ganassi one more thing.

“Don’t you dare,” Andretti said. “Don’t you dare tell Kyle not to race midgets or sprint cars.”

“OK, I hear you,” Ganassi said.
Times have changed and such things are negotiated. Car owner Rick Hendrick, who once didn’t like his drivers racing outside of NASCAR, gave his blessing for Larson to race beyond NASCAR (just as Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman also have been allowed to do this season). Larson has run the most races outside of NASCAR of his teammates.

Andretti said running all those races beyond his Cup events are beneficial to Larson’s growth.

“If you have that desire to do that crossover (to other series), you’re not giving up anything anywhere,” Andretti said. “If anything, you’re just gaining more knowledge and putting more in the bank.

“That’s the way I looked at it. Maybe I’m wrong. All I know is what I did and what worked for me. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world now looking back. I don’t think I gave up anything by doing that. If anything, I gained.”

NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at The Glen

WATKINS GLEN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 08: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, celebrates in the Ruoff Mortgage victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Go Bowling at The Glen at Watkins Glen International on August 08, 2021 in Watkins Glen, New York. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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While some compare Larson to Andretti, Foyt and Stewart, he’s not ready for such talk.

“I’m 29 years old, and I’m not anywhere close to the stuff that they’ve all accomplished,” Larson said. “At least I feel like I can hopefully track toward that someday as I’m approaching 20 more years of racing. I’d like to hopefully be in the same category as them. At least being mentioned with them right now is a huge honor.”

That’s what Stewart says of Larson.

“I think it’s an honor for all of us to be compared to Kyle right now because the kid, no matter what he gets in, he’s winning in,” Stewart told NBC Sports.

“What Kyle is doing - who knows the next time we’re going to see somebody that can do what he’s doing right now? People need to enjoy and appreciate what he is able to do in a race car right now and realize that … however many races he ends up winning, it is because of sheer talent.

“He’s a unicorn. He’s a diamond in the rough. He’s something special that doesn’t come around very often.”

2. Hot car (Literally)

One of the key issues with the Next Gen car is how hot it can get for drivers.

Denny Hamlin, driving the car for the first time in this week’s Daytona test, experienced the heat in the car.

“I can’t express how hot it was,” Hamlin said. “It was really, really hot.”

Hamlin felt that heat despite having an AC unit hooked to his helmet and wearing a cool shirt under his uniform.

“It is a concern,” Hamlin said of the heat in the cars. “It’s a big, big concern. Obviously, it’s difficult because it’s the way the car is designed. The design of it having where the exhaust is all boxed in running underneath the seat. It’s hot. It’s 450 degrees down in that box. It’s super hot.

“Then you’ve got the exhaust. All the hot radiator flowing into the car from the hood. I don’t really know. I think they’re going to have to make some big changes to it, something that will allow us to finish races without having major issues. I think they made some gains with some stuff they did with Austin Dillon later in the day, hopefully.”

Chris Buescher, who took part in the test, also noted the heat in the car.

“It’s pretty warm, so we’re working on trying to cool it off,” he said during the test. “We’ve got some different hose configurations, so we’re going through those trying to alleviate some of the heat inside.”

John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president, racing innovation, said work remained on the heat in the car.

“We obviously have a list of things to work on coming out of here,” he sad. “We have to work on the heat in the car; we have some ideas there. We used the afternoon today to try some big swings at things and found some directions to go, so I feel like we made some really big gains there.

3. Committed

Richmond has a history of commitment line violations and that could play a role in Saturday’s Cup playoff race.

“I feel like people don’t realize how little you can really see out of the Cup cars,” Alex Bowman said. “You can’t really see that box unless you’re squared-up with it. Late pit calls probably play a role in that. But it’s early. It’s hard to see. And that pit road entrance is super slick. The race track is super slick. So, there are a lot of factors. But it is definitely a tough one and an easy one to miss and cause a big penalty for yourself.”

In the spring race, Kyle Busch failed to get all four tires below the orange box before he pitted on Lap 343 of the 400-lap event. He was running third at the time. The penalty dropped him to 10th. He finished eighth.

In last fall’s playoff race at Richmond, Kevin Harvick was penalized for a commitment line violation on Lap 185. He was running second before the infraction and fell to 27th after the penalty. He finished seventh.

In the 2019 spring race, Ryan Blaney was penalized for a commitment line violation on Lap 311. He was running outside the top 20 at the time. He finished 25th.

William Byron avoided a penalty in last spring’s race but he missed pit road before his final green-flag stop and had to make another lap before pitting.

“To get on pit road, I think, there are a lot of different techniques,” Byron said. “It looks like some guys just kind of ultimately just turn down early and get to pit road extremely early.

“You kind of run the risk if you stay up there on the track of not getting the car slowed down. I knew I wasn’t going to make it, pretty early on, because the car started wheel-hopping and I couldn’t get the gears to match up and decel. So yeah, it’s a risk you take.

“On our end, I think there’s going to be more of a conservative approach this race just to make sure we don’t have any issues. You’ve still got to get all you can get. But do so, and make sure you can get there. I don’t see it being a huge issue. We all kind of know what we’re up against.”

4. Pit Road Speeding

Pit road speeding penalties can play a key role in the outcome of a race, as Martin Truex Jr. experienced in last weekend’s playoff opener at Darlington Raceway.

That was the fourth pit road speeding penalty for Truex this season. Three of those penalties have cost him likely top-two finishes, if not wins.

He was the first car off pit road with less than 50 laps left last weekend at Darlington when he was caught speeding. That dropped him to 15th. He finished fourth.

“I feel like we left some on the table,” Truex said after the race.

He is 36 points above the cutline heading to Richmond.

At Richmond in the spring, Truex finished second in both stages and was running second when he was caught speeding on Lap 294 of the 400-lap race. That dropped him to 12th. He finished fifth.

Here is a list of pit road speeding penalties for full-time Cup drivers this season (playoff drivers in bold):

5 — Ross Chastain

4 — Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Anthony Alfredo, Josh Bilicki, Austin Dillon, Corey LaJoie, Daniel Suarez, Cody Ware

3 — Michael McDowell, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Newman, Bubba Wallace

2 — Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Chase Briscoe, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

1 — Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvck, Chris Buescher, Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto, Quin Houff, Ryan Preece

0 — Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones

5. Honor and Remember

Saturday marks 20 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Cars in the Xfinity and Cup races at Richmond will have paint schemes that pay tribute to first responders and those lost in the attacks.

NBC Sports will have a feature before the Cup race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) that will include interviews with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton sharing memories of that time.

Earnhardt won at Dover in the first Cup race after the attacks. Helton was the NASCAR President in 2001. He was involved in the decision to postpone the New Hampshire race, scheduled a few days after Sept. 11, and resume the season the following week at Dover.

This week’s NASCAR on NBC podcast with Nate Ryan features the interview with Helton.

“If we do New Hampshire, it’s going to be a challenge, emotionally and physically,” Helton said. “Then everybody said ‘Let’s sleep on it and we’ll get together first thing Wednesday morning (Sept. 12, 2001).’” But by then I think everybody had resolved, ‘OK, we’re not going to do this at New Hampshire.’ ... You had to figure out when that race was going to take place, if it were going to take place.

“Then you start thinking past all of that to where if we’re not going to run this weekend, when do we run again type thing.”

Listen to the full interview on the NASCAR on NBC podcast here.

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