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ANDERS: Larson's sprint car exploits a calculated risk

NASCAR Fontana Auto Racing-2
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Kyle Larson celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Sunday, March 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

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By JORDAN ANDERS
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, April 2, 2017

 

After accomplished sprint car driver Dave Steele was killed in a crash last Saturday night at Desoto Speedway in Florida, the national racing conversation unfortunately took its seemingly annual turn to the loss of another driver and the inherent dangers of racing.

I wrote about it in this column last August when driver Bryan Clauson was killed in a crash while racing a midget car in Kansas. It’s the ugliest side of a sport that is supposed to be exhilarating and fun.

That made it all the more timely that Kyle Larson, one of the most recognizable sprint car alums racing in NASCAR, finally broke through for his first win of the season last Sunday at Fontana. The 24-year-old California native rose through the ranks on dirt and still runs sprint car races sporadically throughout the season for Larson Marks Racing, the team he co-owns with fellow driver Justin Marks.

Larson was asked after his Cup win about Steele, with whom he had once been a teammate on dirt. The more interesting insight, though, came from his NASCAR team owner, Chip Ganassi, who was asked about Larson’s habit of popping up in a sprint car at dirt tracks across the country.

Ganassi told USA Today Sports that he was “concerned” when Larson decided to race sprint cars, and that he would “be much happier if he said he wanted to go play golf.”

It isn’t uncommon for sports teams to include contract clauses that forbid athletes from taking part in activities that could be dangerous or cause injury. NASCAR is unique in that Monster Energy Cup drivers often pop up in other series — within NASCAR or outside of it — to compete.

Tony Stewart was famously forbidden by owner Joe Gibbs from racing sprint cars, and used to show up to dirt tracks to run them under the alias “Smoke Johnson.” Ironically, the broken leg Stewart suffered in 2013 while racing sprint cars came five years after he departed JGR and was driving for Stewart Haas-Racing.

Racing, no matter the form, is dangerous. Sprint car racing, with its high speeds and minimal protection for drivers, is especially dangerous, as the NASCAR world was reminded by Clauson’s death last year and Jason Leffler’s in 2013.

I’m sure no one would blame Ganassi for putting his foot down with his team’s prized commodity and telling him to drop his sprint car hobby. But there are plenty of factors at play here, not the least of which being the fact that Larson is finally starting to deliver on the promise that followed him to the Cup Series four years ago.

As an owner of one of the series’ second-tier teams, Ganassi has to know that every top-tier team would be salivating at the chance to put Larson in one of its cars, and that rankling the driver by cuffing his outside interests isn’t going to go very far in the name of trying to keep him.

Ganassi is allowing his driver to not only do what he loves, but to do something that is also important for NASCAR’s growth. Larson’s continued appearances at dirt tracks helps NASCAR maintain a connection with those fans, ones who maybe come out and check out the local short track but aren’t jumping to spend their dollar on a Cup Series ticket.

There is a crossover appeal there that Larson appears to understand, which is part of the reason he swept the NASCAR races at Fontana last weekend, then was at Placerville (Calif.) Speedway on Wednesday night to run a World of Outlaws sprint car race.

Running races outside of NASCAR will always be a tricky situation for drivers and team owners, but Larson’s calculated risk seems to be paying off.

PREDICTION

I think Larson produces another strong showing today, but the guy who finished second to him in Fontana did so after clawing his way back from damage suffered at the green flag. That guy also finished in the top 5 in both Martinsville races last season, and I think that consistency turns into a win today.

PICK: Brad Keselowski.

Contact Jordan Anders at janders@reflector.com, 252-329-9594 or follow @ReflectorJordan on Twitter.

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