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NASCAR is looking ahead to this weekend when all three national series will be racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Mar. 5-7.
The Cup Series has had a mix of winners so far, with different drivers winning each of its opening three races this season at the Daytona 500, the Daytona road course and Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Another 1.5-mile intermediate track is next on the schedule with Las Vegas following William Byron’s win at Homestead last Sunday. Vegas will be followed by Phoenix (one-mile), Atlanta (1.54-mile) and the Bristol dirt race (0.533-mile) at the end of the month. Drivers are sharing their thoughts on the upcoming races today.
Stories around NASCAR:
Kyle Larson feeling “fresh as ever” upon NASCAR return
4 p.m. Kyle Larson said he’s been happy with his team’s performance to start the season, in which the new No. 5 Chevrolet driver for Hendrick Motorsports is making his full-time return to NASCAR after his suspension from the sport last spring.
Larson has earned two top-10 finishes in his first three races back. He finished 10th at the Daytona 500, 30th at the Daytona road course and, most recently, fourth at Homestead-Miami Speedway last Sunday.
“I’m happy with it. New team. New faces,” Larson said. “I haven’t been in a (Cup) car in a long time and to be as strong as we’ve been throughout the whole race at every race has been really good, so I’ve been happy.”
Larson’s last race, prior to his suspension for using a racial slur and subsequent reinstatement, was at Phoenix in March. He said he’s making a smooth transition back into the sport and that that he hasn’t noticed a major difference in equipment between his new Hendrick team compared to his former Chip Ganassi Racing organization, although he noted that the ride quality in the No. 5 was “a little bit smoother” at Homestead than in the No. 42 previously.
In terms of his return to the driver’s seat, Larson said he’s been surprised with how seamless it’s been.
“I thought there would be cobwebs and rust,” Larson said. “But maybe because I raced so much last year in sprint cars, in open-wheel cars and dabbled in some late model stuff, I felt as fresh as ever in a racecar.
“Everything just felt normal,” He added. “It didn’t feel like I’d been out of a car in a long time, so that was good. Even shifting gears and coming down pit road ... It’s all come natural so far. I don’t really feel like I’ve made any mistakes doing those little things. And I think when you’re out of a car for a long time, it’s the little things you forget about.”
Early win easing points pressure for William Byron
3 p.m.: William Byron, like Michael McDowell, is another Cup driver who is sleeping easier this week after an early win this year. Byron won Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I didn’t get a lot of sleep on Monday, but this past night I went to sleep with a lot less anxiety,” Byron said. “It’s really easy to stress about points throughout NASCAR seasons, and we don’t have to worry about that.”
Byron said his next goal is to finish in the top-10 in points to give him a boost in playoffs, but the pressure of getting that first win this season is off and what’s left is more confidence for the No. 24 team.
“I think just that taste and that drive to win is there after the first one for me,” Byron said.
Michael McDowell might be “legit” this year
2 p.m.: Michael McDowell is off to a red hot start to the 2021 season. He won the Daytona 500, finished eighth at the Daytona road course and sixth at Homestead for three top-10 finishes, including a win, in the first three races of the season. His average finish is fifth so far this year after posting a 21st place average finish for the full 2020 season.
He’s said he’s still processing what these early high finishes mean in terms of team goals for the remainder of the season. His win at the Daytona 500 locks him into the Cup playoffs in September.
“I’m not exactly sure what the expectation looks like, but I think the approach and the mentality stays the same,” McDowell told reporters Tuesday. “And our approach has just always been just fight hard, give it everything you have and if that’s 20th, then you fight as hard as you can to make sure you get a 20th or better. And if you’ve got a 15th place car, then you fight as hard as you can to try to run 15th or better.
“So I don’t know how we’ll be at Vegas and I don’t know how we’ll be at Phoenix,” McDowell continued. “I’d love to be the guy that comes on here that I think sort of everybody want to be like, ‘Yeah, we’re legit. We’re gonna win five races this year and we’re gonna contend for the championship.’ I don’t know that to be true, but I do know we’re going to fight our guts out and we’ll see where we end up.”
Marcus Lemonis spreads the wealth in Truck Series, teams up with Sheldon Creed for race
11:15 a.m.: The defending Truck champion doesn’t have full sponsorship for the season. Sheldon Creed drove a plain white truck to a second place finish at the Daytona road course two weeks ago, and said the team has been working to create and capitalize on business-to-business opportunities to help finance the remainder of its full season schedule.
Marcus Lemonis, CEO of Camping World, which sponsors the NASCAR Truck Series, posted a tweet Monday asking which teams were not sponsored for the upcoming race at Las Vegas this weekend. That followed an earlier tweet by Lemonis telling Creed to contact him about sponsorship after the Daytona road course race. Now, Creed will run a Camping World paint scheme this weekend.
“I didn’t think we were going to do anything with it,” Creed said about Lemonis’ tweets. “I didn’t know if they could wrap the trucks in time because they leave today for Vegas, and woke up this morning with text and calls from the people from GMS saying they could do it. So yeah, wrapping the truck with Camping World this week.”
Lemonis tweeted Monday evening that he’s offering $15,000 for a wrapped truck, $25,000 for a top-10 finish, $35,000 for a top-five finish and $50,000 for a win. He also expanded prize pool money for winning teams in the series earlier this year, with bonuses going to the winning driver and road crew.
Creed finished second at the last race in Las Vegas. He said he didn’t know why it was so difficult for Truck team to find sponsorship, but speculated that sponsors focus on Cup races first.
“And Cup teams are maybe not taking full money right now, so it makes it harder for us Truck teams and then we are kind of forced to take less money than what the Truck races actually cost,” Creed said. “I think it’s something that everyone is trying to figure out right now.”
He said Lemonis’ investment in the series through bonus money and sponsorship has been “huge.”
“Obviously I race for a bigger Truck team, so maybe we’re not in need of it as much as say like a Jordan Anderson and team like that, but anything helps,” Creed said. “We’re at a level now where it just takes everything you have to compete and win every week.”
Kurt Busch talks Las Vegas race, points and retirement rumors
11 a.m.: After 22 starts at his hometown track, Kurt Busch finally won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last season. He called it a huge win since the track had been “a thorn in (his) side over the years” and somewhere he thought he would never conquer during his Cup career.
“It was really a spiritual moment of winning last September in the playoffs at the South Point 400,” Busch said. “And then not having fans and having people at the race track (last year), and then it was like boom. They zoomed in on me and we all celebrated through the T.V. lens.”
Fans will be back for this year’s race at reduced capacity after the speedway had its fan attendance plan approved last month by the Nevada Department of Business and Industry. That plan called for hosting fans at 20% capacity, or roughly 15,000 fans, according to KTNV.
Busch, who is ranked sixth in points (104) and 35 points behind leader Denny Hamlin (139), said his team’s plan is to keep “chiseling away” at points early on to reach the playoffs. Busch noted that the three unique winners, representing three different manufacturers, have come on different tracks, and that it’s still too early in the season to panic over playoffs.
“You’ve got to let things play out a little bit here and see how things shake out,” Busch said. “ ... The important thing for us is to stick to our strength, and that’s to gain points methodically through the stages of each race, with race finishes and if we’ve got a chance to gamble for a win at the end, we of course need to grab it.”
Busch, 42, also remained coy following a question about a nine-minute video he released with Monster Energy last month that teased his potential retirement. The video features Monster athlete and Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski pleading with Busch in the opening minutes, “Don’t do it man. Don’t retire. Take it from me. You’re on top of your game,” Gronkowski says in the video.
Busch responds to Gronkowski in the video, “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got this under control. I’ve seen you do this,” before he does a burnout in front of rapper Vanilla Ice and drives 200 m.p.h across the Seven Mile Bridge in Florida. The highly produced video, Busch said, was meant to emphasize the “Monster lifestyle.” But is it a retirement video?
“It’s left to your interpretation,” Busch said. “Replay it. Watch it again and have everbody else open it up and watch for more views.”