Larson Doesn’t Necessarily Think He’s The Favorite, Why Austin Dillon Should Be Noted and How Dillon Feels About That
Kyle Larson is the obvious favorite to take the win in Sunday’s Food City Bristol Dirt Race (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN). He’s listed pre race at 2-1 and coming off of what very would could have been two wins in the last three races.
Larson, won earlier this month at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and if things went better towards the end of last weeks Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, would have put him in victory lane for a second time already this season and becoming the first repeat winner of 2021 as a result.
Larson, swept both stages and led a race-high 269 of 325 laps. Unfortunately, his strategy cost him in the end as he was too hard on his tires in trying to get out to a bigger lead following his final pit stop. He felt like his car was so abrasive on tires, that if he could have pushed out to a large enough advantage early on in the run, that even with his tires falling off in the end, his lead would have been big enough to sustain a charge from Ryan Blaney.
Instead, the track cooled off, Blaney heated up and Larson’s tires were shot. He noted that if he changed his approach and was easier on his tires on the initial laps of that run, he could have had some tires left in the end to get by Joey Logano easier to put him a lap down and to then hold off Blaney’s run.
Still, five top 10 finishes in six races to start 2021 is what Larson was hoping for out of the gates.
“I had hoped that we could start the year off this strong, or close to being this strong,” Larson said during his zoom call on Wednesday morning.
Now, with all of that early season success out of his No. 5 Chevrolet mixed with how great he’s been on dirt tracks, Larson is the heavy favorite to win Sunday’s race at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway.
“I think people look at me with all the experience that I have on dirt as being even more of a favorite,” said Larson. “But these cars are way different than what I typically race on dirt. They don’t drive anything like what I’m used to with a sprint car, midget or now a dirt late model. These cars are way heavier and have a lot less horsepower than I’m used to on a dirt track.
“I still think I’ve got a good shot, but I don’t really know if I have an advantage over anybody, other than just being able to kind of read the track surface; know kind of how that’s changing, where to find grip and things like that.”
Larson said that Christopher Bell (5-1) and even Austin Dillon (9-1) would be the better drivers to focus on instead of him.
“I would not be shocked if a pavement guy went there and was fast right off the bat because I don’t think it’s going to be like dirt like we’re used to,” Larson continued. “It’s hard to also not look at the guys that have a lot of dirt experience as being the favorite. I think Christopher Bell, I think he’s obviously one of the most talented race car drivers I’ve ever watched, especially on dirt. I think, for sure, he’ll be one of the guys to beat.
“Austin Dillon is another one that I look at. If anybody has got more experience racing on this type of stuff, it’s him. I’ve got probably still under 10 dirt late model events under my belt, where he grew up racing modifieds and late models and stuff, so he is used to the heavier types of cars. He just raced a crate late model there, so he’s used less horsepower and stuff in a full-bodied car.
“I think Austin, if anybody, probably has the most advantage, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if a guy like Kyle Busch, who is so talented and can adapt to anything, can go there and win. I wouldn’t be shocked either if the finishing results weren’t much different than a normal Bristol race.”
Dillon, was astonished to say the least that Larson put him in a category with him for Sunday’s race.
“(Larson’s) good at anything he gets in – I’m just glad he mentioned me,” Dillon said in his media availability on Tuesday. “That’s pretty awesome, really. Makes my day. Now I’ve gotta step up and perform.”
Both Larson and Dillon ran Super Late Model’s at Bristol last week, an event that Dillon actually won. Larson had a front row seat for it. In fact, Dillon earned three wins in the 604 Late Models class for Cory Hedgecock Racing. He also won his heat and feature on March 16 and again on March 20. He also won the Truck Series’ inaugural race at Eldora in 2013 as well.
With that vast array of dirt experience as well as success, Dillon does feel like he should be a contender this weekend.
“The competition in the Cup Series … I think it’s the highest form of motorsports, the best drivers in the world,” said Dillon. “All of them are doing their job, preparation-wise, off the track, running other cars they’re not comfortable running in just to get on dirt and understand what the transition of the track is. There’s a lot of smart dirt crew chiefs out there also that people are probably bringing in trying to understand how they can make their cars drive better on dirt.
“… I think there’s some guys with less dirt experience that are going to be surprised. But there’s so many good race car drivers at the Cup level that have dirt experience or some sort of dirt experience they’ll be able to lean on. Not many of the guys at this point in the Cup level – maybe, a couple – have ever not been on dirt. I think everybody has some form of dirt experience at this point.”
Larson says that following last weekend’s race that he feels like the track is going to be more of a slick track anyways than a normal dirt race.
“I would assume that (the track is) going to be really slick,” Larson said. “It’ll probably slow down a lot. I don’t think it’s going to drive like an aggressive-style dirt car that I’m used to. So yeah, I think that if anything, (it) evens the playing field a lot for guys that don’t have dirt experience. We’ll see how it goes.
“I don’t know what to expect. I think I have a little bit more of an idea now after racing there last week. But still, there’s a lot of unknown because the cars are different; the tires are different than what I ran last week. So, we’ll see.”
Dillon though is more confident in the sense that he feels like he can find a lane with grip in it.
“This stuff kind of creates a fluff,” he said. “It gets up there and you can gain grip, because it might be wet up there for a while. But it’s not something you can use as a curb to catch you.
“It’s just different, and I’m glad it came from around here, because I feel like I’ve ran on it a lot and know when it has grip and when it doesn’t.”
Kyle Busch said earlier in the week that while Bristol is a crap shoot, he still feels like the dirt guys have the advantage still.
“The dirt guys, I would say, definitely have an advantage,” Busch said. “The more experience you have on dirt, the more trust you have in what the vehicle can do on dirt and what your driving style is or what your driving technique can be and how you can trust the grip level that the dirt has versus what your car has. I think there’s a lot of things that the dirt guys can really pick up on. You always see in those truck races the guys that are good at it, that put some time into it, are better than the ones that are not. I can’t name them all, but (Kyle) Larson, Christopher (Bell), (Tyler) Reddick, even Bubba (Wallace). Bubba never really had any dirt experience, but he did a good job in the Eldora race for us (winning in 2014). (Stewart) Friesen, I think he will actually do a really good job. He’s obviously known as a dirt guy. Those guys will shine, and I think that they will be faster during points of the weekend, but I think it’s all going to be circumstantial on how it comes down to the end and what exactly happens towards the finish.”
Steep Learning Curve For Briscoe So Far
Chase Briscoe knew that his debut season in Cup would be a bit more difficult than he’s accustomed to. See, in the Xfinity Series the last couple of seasons, he said he had a huge advantage in talent and his race cars were so much better than most of the field. He noted that even if you have to go to the back, you could make your way back to the front with relative ease.
In Cup, the quality of talent and equipment in the field these days are much tougher. It’s not so easy to come to the front in NASCAR’s premiere series.
Briscoe told a story about how last weekend, he was chatting with friend and fellow competitor Austin Cindric about the race. He said that he told Cindric who was making his second Cup Series start that the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 would be the most frustrating day of his life. What he meant by that was, you feel like you’re going to run hard and all out, but you will struggle to get track position and despite running so hard, you’ll ask your team what place you’re in and you’re going to be in 25th.
“He came up to me right after the race and said, ‘Man, you aren’t kidding. I asked them about halfway through what position I was in, and I was 25th,’” Briscoe said of his conversation with Cindric after the race. “It’s just crazy how you race so hard, and you’re 20th to 25th place. It’s just really tough in the Cup Series for sure.”
“It’s only been six races, so trying to keep that in perspective. It’s just the Cup Series is so hard; everybody is so good. I just try to keep in perspective that Chase Elliott is our last champion, and it took him nearly 100 races to get a win, so just trying to remember it’s not going to come right away. Every rookie, I feel like, struggles a little bit and it takes time to get your feet underneath you.
“I feel like I’ve learned so much over these first six races I know I’m going to be twice the race car driver in another six races, and then by the end of the year, it’s going to be an incredible growth. So, I just gotta try to learn as much as I can here early. But it’s definitely frustrating not even to say we have a top 10 (finish) right now or even a top 15.”
Another part of the learning curve is that Stewart-Haas Racing just hasn’t had very good cars this season. They’re struggling for all out speed and just haven’t had good cars across the company. For a rookie driver and most races not having practice or qualifying, it makes it even harder to find it.
“It just seems like our cars don’t have the raw speed of the other cars, and they just don’t drive very good right now either,” Briscoe said. “I know there’s definitely a concern in our company. Our competition meetings have been very intense the last couple of weeks; we’re definitely going to figure this deal out and try to figure out what’s going on and get another direction on it. I think you’re going to see a difference here in the upcoming weeks for sure, just because there are so many smart people here at SHR.”
Briscoe also said that he was talking to a couple of guys from the team the other day, and they said that this has happened to their company before where they’ve struggled and had to reinvent the wheel and get back to something and figure it out.
“I think that’s the same thing here. For me, I think the encouraging thing is as a company, we’ve struggled — it’s not encouraging that we’re struggling, but for me to struggle to even run inside the top 20, and then you look at my teammates, and they’re kind of right there with me. For me, at least, that’s good. It’s different if I’d be running 25th and Kevin was winning every race, but as a company, we’re just off right now. I know we’re going to get it turned around, and hopefully, we get it turned around soon.”
Kyle Busch Happy With Start To The Season
Kyle Busch has been frustrated on his team radio at times this season. But, as he sits here today going into Sunday’s Food City Bristol Dirt Race, he’s really starting to heat up.
Busch, hasn’t led a lap all season. He’s not been in contention for Stage nor Race wins. He was 14th in the Daytona 500 and 35th on the Daytona road course. But, in the four races since, he’s scored three top 10 results. In the last three races, he’s picked up a pair of top fives in his No. 18 Toyota. To be doing this so early in the season with a new crew chief is what’s giving him more and more confidence by the week.
“We were fast right at the start of the race,” Busch said of last week’s race in Atlanta. “We drove our way up towards the front. We kept clawing all day long, every time we had setbacks, too. We’d get back towards the front. It was nice to have that speed in our race car that we could perform like that – to be ourselves and be in a position to have a good run.”
Busch says that speed is great to have especially with a new crew chief in Ben Beshore. It could have taken some time for the two to gel, especially in the sense that there’s not been much practice this season. But, the two have hit the ground running and while they’ve struggled at times early in the races, the communication between the two have helped propel Busch’s car back up the field as the race goes on. Then in Atlanta, they started out better than they have all season.
It’s to what Busch says could lead to a better end of the season when they finally have everything lined up.
“We’re trying to figure all of this out together right now and make sure that we can continue to improve as the year goes along in order to be the best when it matters most,” Busch said.
Now, it’s to Bristol on dirt this weekend, to where Busch says he doesn’t have much experience on this racing surface. Luckily for him, he has his own Truck Series team that has past experience at Eldora and Busch notes that he’s leaning heavily on.
“We will go out there and give it everything we’ve got and see what we can do. Our team has really relied heavily on Kyle Busch Motorsports as to what we’ve done with the trucks and the Truck Series with the success that we’ve had,” he said.
“It’s just going to be a learning experience for sure. These vehicles are nothing like I’ve driven on dirt, probably, so it’s going to be interesting.”