NASCAR: Larson says he's close to grabbing first Sprint Cup win

LOUDON, N.H. - It may not be the expression of gratitude Jeff Gordon had in mind, but Kyle Larson knows one way he can pay Gordon back for all the kind words he has said about the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie.

LOUDON, N.H. - It may not be the expression of gratitude Jeff Gordon had in mind, but Kyle Larson knows one way he can pay Gordon back for all the kind words he has said about the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie.

Larson would like nothing more than to whip Gordon on the race track.

"Before I even raced the K&N Series, Jeff Gordon had a lot of respect for me and talked very highly of me," Larson said Friday before opening Sprint Cup practice in preparation for Sunday's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on ESPN). "It seems like Jeff's my biggest fan over the last couple of years.

"It's awesome to see a guy who has been racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series as long as I've been alive to talk so highly of me. I don't even know if he's really ever even talked about another driver like he has with me. That makes it feel really special for me."

And the way to live up to Gordon's high praise?


"Now I just want to go out there and beat him more often," Larson said.

In last week's opening Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Chicagoland Speedway, Larson finished third behind race winner Brad Keselowski and Gordon after leading 20 laps. Almost everyone in the garage expects Larson to achieve a breakthrough win sooner rather than later, and Larson seems ready to fulfill that expectation.

"Every race I will sit in the motorhome and watch TV and flip to Twitter," Larson said. "Everybody always says 'This is your weekend.' I believe them, but it kind of sucks when you don't win. But I definitely feel like we're really close. We've been close a couple of times this year. Heck, we were just a little bit off of winning at Fontana. Then I thought we had the first or second best car last week.

"If I could have done things right we could have two wins this season. I think it's coming. I hope it's before the end of this year. But, if not, we won't be too disappointed, because we've been running well all season long. I didn't win any Nationwide races last year, and then I feel like I've been really competitive this year in Nationwide. I'm sure, starting next year, we will be really good in the Cup series."

If winning early in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was a long-term liberating experience for Brad Keselowski, winning last week's Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway is more like a hall pass -- good for two races until the start of the next elimination round.

After winning the third race of the season, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Keselowski expressed sentiments similar to those voiced by the year's first two winners, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick -- namely that winning, and thereby all but assuring a Chase berth, gave them the freedom to race without fear of trying out-of-the-box strategies.

That was the mind-set Keselowski brought to Richmond in the final regular-season race, and he won in dominating fashion. By then, of course, he had been every bit as dominant in winning at Kentucky and at New Hampshire in July.

"I kind of feel exactly like we did at Richmond," Keselowski said Friday, after an announcement that his primary sponsor, Miller Lite, also had extended its partnership agreement with New Hampshire Motor Speedway for three years. "We've got two races to -- I don't want to say goof off -- but with no consequences, and that's enjoyable.


"Everybody loves it when all you can do it win. It's like getting a free lottery ticket. If you lose, it doesn't matter, and you have the potential to win something big. We're going to have fun with it, and I think we have the ability to capitalize with it with strong cars and a great team, and hopefully we can pull off a sweep here."

In three seasons with Richard Petty Motorsports, Aric Almirola had never exited a race because of an engine failure -- until last week at Chicagoland.

The blown engine couldn't have come at a worse time. Almirola was running sixth, 30 laps away from making a statement in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Instead, he finished 41st and plummeted from potential Chase surprise to the longest of long shots to survive to first elimination round.

The culprit? A broken exhaust valve.

"It was the same thing that happened to the 22 (Joey Logano) at Kentucky and the same thing that happened to the 9 car (Marcos Ambrose) at Atlanta," Almirola told the NASCAR Wire Service. "They've had a couple issues already this year, and they thought they had it fixed. They changed the way the valves were designed and thought that it wasn't going be an issue any more, and I guess it was again.

"I talked to Doug Yates (president and CEO of Roush Yates Racing Engines), and he was heartbroken for us. He was extremely apologetic."

Almirola said the team didn't employ a more aggressive engine package for the Chicago race and that the failure was mere happenstance.

"It was nothing different than what we've been running the past couple months," he explained. "My hat goes off to Doug Yates. He builds awesome horsepower for us. We went back and looked, and it's the first time we have not finished a race because of an engine failure in the three years I've been at Richard Petty Motorsports.


"Of all weekends for it to happen, the first race of the Chase -- why could it have not happened at Atlanta or Richmond or wherever else, but it is what it is. It just wasn't meant to be. The stars didn't line up right for us at Chicago, but we'll rebound."


By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service

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