Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR LOUDON, NH – Kevin Harvick set the tone for Friday’s question-and-answer sessions at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with a simple, frank comment.
“If you drove like this 10 years ago, you’d have had a fist in your mouth,” Harvick said in response to a question about the current level of aggression in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing. “What changed were the rules and when every spot becomes that much more difficult to achieve, you have to defend the spots that you have because you know that you might not get it back, and you know that you have to block.”
With the constant battles to gain and hold positions, restarts have become more important and consequently more frenetic.
“Yeah, it feels like restarts are the craziest they’ve been ever since I’ve been in the Cup Series, just because the cars are so draggy,” Ryan Blaney said. “That’s the easiest spot to kind of make a move, and you can just drive these cars so hard, it’s just about driving harder than someone else a lot of the time. Your right-foot commitment is way higher, I feel like.
“As far as the aggressive level, I think people see that because you’re seeing a lot more blocking and cutting off runs now, just because you have to do it. I’ve thrown big blocks this year on mile-and-a-half race tracks. That’s just how it is and you kind of expect it.
“Have I expected to get punched in the mouth a couple of times this year? Yeah, but at the end of the day you realize that that person would make the same move that you do and vice versa.”
Rick Stenhouse Jr. also thinks job security (or lack thereof) might be a factor.
“We’re all super-aggressive,” Stenhouse said. “I enjoy it, especially when I have a car capable of doing what I want it to do. I could see Kevin saying that, because I feel like that was the mentality of the garage for a long time, and I think every sport changes, and I feel like now you’ve got a bunch of us that feel like we’re racing for our job every lap, so we go out and put it all on the line.”
KYLE LARSON FACES MORE DIFFICULT CHALLENGE AFTER SATURDAY
It’s a good thing Kyle Larson enjoys the shifting challenges presented by New Hampshire Motor Speedway, because he’ll need all his skills to salvage a strong finish after starting from the rear in Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
In Saturday morning practice at the Magic Mile, Larson locked up the brakes on his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet entering Turn 1 and slammed into the outside wall. Damage to the right front of the car dictated a switch to a backup for Sunday’s race.
“I just locked up the brakes,” Larson said. “Simple as that—locked ‘em up.”
Because he will be driving a backup car, Larson must give up the 15th-place starting spot he earned during time trials on Friday and drop to the rear of the field for the beginning of the race. That will give him plenty of opportunity to test his talent as he tries to move forward.
It will also test his team’s ability to keep up with a track that changes throughout the 301-lap event.
“It’s a fun place because it’s definitely changing quite a bit,” Larson said. “There is a lot of VHT (traction compound) put down at this track and, with it being flatter, I also feel like it wears out more so than other race tracks.
“That’s fun to keep up with, especially during the race where you have to adjust your line throughout the race to keep up with the changing track conditions. I think, being a dirt-track guy, that benefits me a little bit.”
Given his starting spot in the relatively short race, Larson will need all the help he can get.
WILLIAM BYRON SMACKS OUTSIDE WALL IN SECOND CUP PRACTICE
Throughout the NASCAR weekend, William Byron has had a running battle with the outside wall at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
In Friday’s qualifying session, Byron grazed the barrier with the right rear of his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but not severely enough to do irreparable damage.
On Saturday, however, the wall won.
Byron’s car broke loose in Turn 1 and clobbered the SAFER barrier, crumpling the entire right side of his Chevrolet. Crew chief Chad Knaus had no choice but to call for a backup car, and Byron will drop to the rear of the field for the start of Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“We’ve just been really loose, and I tried to drive through it and see if it would come to me better, and it didn’t,” Byron said after a mandatory trip to the infield care center. “It was even looser yet, and that was kind of the story, just got loose. Hopefully, tomorrow we can have a good, solid day and go from there.”
Byron indicated the Saturday accident was unrelated to what happened during qualifying.
“No, I was just making laps,” he said. “Trying to find grip and speed and just wasn’t able to do it.”
The Hendrick team suffered another major blow later in final practice. Already in a backup car, thanks to a broken drive shaft during Friday’s qualifying, Alex Bowman took a hard hit against the outside wall roughly 20 minutes into the session.
The team promptly rolled out Jimmie Johnson’s backup car, which will be rewrapped in Bowman’s livery for Sunday. Having posted no time during qualifying, Bowman already was set to start from the rear of the field.