RELATED: Chase Grid " Chase Bubble Watch Kyle Larson spent three intense days at Homestead-Miami Speedway last week logging laps, studying data and working on what could potentially be the most important homework assignment of his career. So far. Knowing that the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion will be crowned at the Nov. 22 season-finale at the 1.5-mile speedway, the test session -- a two-day Goodyear tire test followed by a one-day open test -- was an essential learning tool. Thing is, Larson, last year's Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year, still has to earn a spot in the 16-driver Chase field to even be among the title discussion by the time the series heads back to the South Florida track to race. And time's running out. Only two chances remain to grab one of the playoff spots -- this week at Darlingon and next week at Richmond. Because Larson is not currently ranked among the top-16 in the points standings, his only chance of earning a Chase berth is winning a race and making his first career trip to a Sprint Cup Victory Lane. It's crunch time, and Larson knows it. "We know we have to win," Larson said. "And still right now, we have to find some more speed to compete for a win. We've been close a couple times this year just based on strategies. "It could happen even with just two races left. We tested at Richmond earlier in the year and it went well. I always run just outside top-10 at Richmond and I thought I learned a lot (at the test). So we've got good stuff for Richmond, and Darlington is a track I like a lot." Having his season's fate decided in such dramatic fashion wasn't exactly what Larson or others predicted. Larson was widely considered a shoe-in for a title run -- at least a playoff berth -- after an impressive rookie season. A natural talent from the same kind of open-wheel background as three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart and four-time champ Jeff Gordon , Larson has emerged as one of the sport's new young headliners and is widely regarded as future championship material. Now the 23-year-old must seal the deal. "I'm definitely surprised it's come down to this," Larson said while waiting out a rain delay last week at Homestead. "The way both Jamie (McMurray, CGR teammate) and I ended last year, we thought we'd be a contender this year. "We've been fast but just haven't had any luck at all this year and that's been really frustrating. When we have speed in the cars we run in top-10. At Bristol, for example, we blew two front tires. Last year we'd run way worse but have better finishes." WATCH: Rough night for Larson at Bristol There's no denying it's been a no-luck, hard-knock kind of season despite the team's best efforts. While Chip Ganassi Racing 's other Chevrolet driven by McMurray is in promising position to earn a Chase position based on points, it's been a tough road for the team's second-year driver. Larson's third place at Dover in May is his best finish of the season and only top-five showing after a rookie year when he was regularly mixing it up at the front of the field, posting five top-three finishes, including three runner- ups . He's had only two top-10s in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet since Dover this spring, and his four DNFs equal the number he had all of last year. But there is encouraging news to consider, and Larson has not conceded a thing. His No. 42 Chevrolet was easily one of the best cars in the Chase last year with six top-10 finishes in the final 10 races, including a streak of five consecutive as the postseason kicked in. MORE: Larson's Darlington 'Days of Thunder' throwback scheme Should Larson earn a playoff chance, he feels the team should be strong down the stretch. "Last year I thought we were running better at this point in the season than we are now," Larson said. "But a lot of the tracks in the Chase I really enjoy running at and I think that's part of why we had success in the Chase. "I think we'll be good again this year in the Chase. It's just right now, we're not in it." He added quickly: "That could change." MORE: Who's most likely to win way into Chase?
NASCAR fans, check your calendars. Sure, it’s hot and humid outside -- it is August, after all -- but this week feels a lot like Christmas, doesn't it? Saturday marks one of the premier days of each year in motorsports -- we'll be runnin' 'em under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway in the Irwin Tools Night Race (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM). For many, the night race at Bristol is the most-anticipated event of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, even ranking ahead of the Daytona 500 . Seeing that race live is something special, something sure to be on every fan's ultimate bucket list. So that has us wondering -- what's on your bucket list? NASCAR.com's Pat DeCola and Jessica Ruffin offer their personal ones, and you should feel free to list your own down in the comments section. DeCola: My NASCAR bucket list? Man, that's a tough one. The sport has so much history at so many different tracks for so many different reasons, it's hard to narrow it down. For starters, I think I'd want to knock the Brickyard 400 at Indy off my list. The Brickyard is arguably the most famous track in the world -- certainly in the United States -- and I have a sneaking feeling the history runs so deep there that you can breathe it in just as easily as the exhaust from 43 cars running around a 2.5-mile rectangle at 200 mph. Indy's an obvious bucket list item. RELATED: Busch wins Indy for third straight victory Ruffin: Stepping on those celebrated bricks and looking up at the famed pagoda is nothing short of a NASCAR dream, Pat. Indy definitely makes my list, too. And while it's much smaller and less glamorous than Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I'm going to throw Martinsville Speedway on my NASCAR bucket list. As the oldest track on the circuit, Martinsville takes you back in time to the roots of racing. All the greats from Fireball Roberts to Junior Johnson to Richard Petty to Dale Earnhardt have wheeled race cars around the paperclip oval. Watching old-school short-track racing from the grandstands -- which all have a spectacular view -- while munching on a legendary Martinsville hot dog is a must-do for any diehard fan. DeCola: Tell me about it. Much to my cholesterol-level's dismay, Martinsville probably makes my bucket list for the hot dog, alone. Continuing down the history trail here, another one any fan would be thrilled to cross off their list is Darlington Raceway, especially for this year's Labor Day Throwback race. Sure, the summer trips to Myrtle Beach are great, but driving along the outside of the landmark track along the way only makes me wish I could be standing in the infield, watching those killer throwback schemes race to take home the biscuit race for one of NASCAR's majors -- the Bojangles' Southern 500 . RELATED: NASCAR.com names NASCAR's Majors Ruffin: This year's throwback schemes at Darlington are going to be incredible -- fans can bet they'll be transported back to another age of racing when they watch Kevin Harvick 's old-school Budweiser scheme turning laps around the speedway Labor Day weekend from the infield. Another place that makes my bucket list possibly for the infield alone is a "Big One" -- good ole Talladega. Located in the heart of Dixie, the larger-than-life tailgating -- which includes everything from mud wrestling to weddings -- and passionate fans make 'Dega a must-stop on the circuit. The racing's pretty awesome, too, with the superspeedway-style drafting, high speeds and crazy, multi-car pile- ups . And if someone like Junior -- the 'Dega fan favorite -- takes the checkered, the contagious post-race excitement is bound to leave you singing "Sweet Home Alabama" all the way home. DeCola: Home, you say, eh? Well, there's no better place to call home than Daytona International Speedway, which may as well consider itself the flagship track of our entire sport. Sure, I've been there before, but guess what -- the annual season-opening Daytona 500 should be on every NASCAR fan's bucket list … every year. One of the most unpredictable, enthralling races of the entire season, there's no reason to "cross it off" if you've been there before. Once is surely not enough. Ruffin: Daytona International Speedway isn't called the World Center of Racing for nothing, that's for certain. It's an iconic track and the Daytona 500 -- NASCAR's Super Bowl -- is the perfect way to open up the NASCAR season. Let's fast forward from the first race to the last race now: The season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. While it's not considered a NASCAR Major in everyone's book (see what we do consider the four NASCAR Majors here ), the final race of the season is a bucket list item simply for the sake of it being the race that ultimately decides the NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. Judging by the exciting, nail-biting atmosphere it created last season with four drivers all vying for the title, Homestead's popularity and hype is bound to increase. Not to mention its located in beautiful south Florida -- so why not make a vacation out of it?
RELATED: Rules review on differences between new rules packages In the summer months, NASCAR introduced new rules packages for a handful of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races. A new aerodynamic package with less downforce on the cars to create more side-by-side competition and put more in the hands of the driver was used at Kentucky Speedway in July. A similar package will be used at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend for the Bojangles' Southern 500 on Sept. 6 (7 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM). A high drag rules package was used at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last month and will be used again this weekend at Michigan International Speedway for the Pure Michigan 400 (Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM). This rules package reduced the speeds a bit in an effort to create more pack-style competition and drafting. Drivers have been vocal about their opinions on each new package immediately after using it in a race. And if the drivers have an opinion, surely we do as well. NASCAR.com's Kenny Bruce and RJ Kraft are back to debate which rules package has been better: The high-drag setup or the low downforce package? DRIVERS GIVE REVIEWS: Kentucky package " Indianapolis package Kraft: Well, from our last H2H Kenny , you know I was no fan of tweaking the rules even for one race but I was converted after watching the Kentucky race last month. That race had a track-record number of green-flag passes (22) for the lead and a total of 2,665 green-flag passes overall, creating the exact effect the sport's governing body wanted: More side-by-side competition and more passing. The racing itself was tremendous and the late-race duel between Joey Logano and Kyle Busch was the best racing we've seen all season. The high-drag package did not seem to have any real effect on passing and there wasn't much drafting to speak. Frankly, if Kyle Busch didn't score his third straight win, the Indianapolis race doesn't stand out for any reason. And we can't forget that the setup on the cars seemed to have a major effect on how hot it got inside the driver's seat. While a change has been made for an additional NACA duct to be mounted on the right-side window for Michigan, we still need to see if that has a cooling effect greater than what we saw at Indianapolis. RELATED: Impact of heat at Indy causes slight change to cars for Michiga n Bruce: You want cool drivers or better racing, RJ? Truthfully, I do realize the heat generated is a concern, but nothing a few tweaks here and there likely won't eliminate. I don't think officials expected the changes to have an immediate impact on the racing on the track -- a slight improvement was probably more hoped for or anticipated. There's a lot of real-time data to digest that otherwise wouldn't have been acquired. You can't get to Point B without going through Point A first. And don't forget the tire situation -- while the Kentucky package seemed to provide better racing even without tires that were built for the low downforce package, those built for Indy weren't tested with the high drag package either. Just another piece of the puzzle that's still being built. TECH TALK: High drag package built specifically for Michigan Kraft: How about the driver reaction? Despite limited practice time with the low downforce package at Kentucky, pretty much all the drivers loved it and were quite vocal about how much they enjoyed racing with that particular rules package. Drivers liked the fact that they had more control and that there was more passing. As a fan it was exciting to see how often there were cars three-wide and four-wide in that race. And if the drivers are happy and pleased with the rules that are in place, that speaks volumes. While some wanted further tweaks with the low downforce package, the garage seemed to think the Kentucky results were one heck of a first step. That wasn't the case at Indianapolis after the high-drag package was run. I suppose we should wait until it's run a second time this weekend before we condemn it, especially since officials have said this package was specifically built for Michigan. Bruce: There is a world of difference in Kentucky and Indianapolis. Just because the high drag rules didn't totally change the action at Indy is no reason to toss it out. No doubt some things were learned from the weekend. Michigan is a much wider track with better opportunities to work in another racing groove. Maybe it wasn't the final answer for Indy, but let's give it a chance before say it won't work elsewhere. As Jeff Gordon noted, as long as drivers have room to maneuver around the cars in the turns the package has potential. As teams get more opportunities to work with the different set- ups , some will be able to make them work faster than others, and that's always been the case. It may not be the final answer, but it might be a step. And we won't know until we see it in action some more.
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Jeff Gordon 's rise to prominence in NASCAR didn't begin with success on the Sprint Cup Series' road courses. In fact, the Hendrick Motorsports driver was well on his way to his second of four Sprint Cup championships in 1997 before he took the checkered flag as race winner on one of the series' two winding, demanding layouts. That first win came at Watkins Glen International, site of Sunday's Cheez-It 355 at The Glen (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM) in 1997. It was his 144th career start and his 27th career victory. Today, he's recognized as the most successful road-course racer in NASCAR, with nine career victories. With retirement from full-time competition drawing closer with each passing weekend, it will be his last scheduled start on a road course. No more turning left AND right, hairpin turns or elevation changes. Success didn't come easy. "No, I remember going to Sonoma the first time and turning the car over on its side in the tire wall," Gordon recalled Friday at WGI. "I felt like I was pretty lost. "The second year I really felt a big progression and then the third year, which I think is when I won my first road-course race, I think in 1995 or 1996, everything just started to click. We worked hard at it. There is no doubt we worked hard at it. That hard work paid off." Gordon's recollection was off only by a season, understandable for one who has won more races (92) than any other active driver and fewer than only two others all-time, Hall of Famers Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105). He was, however, correct as far as what it took to become a constant threat on the unusual layouts that have fallen only twice annually on the NASCAR calendar during his career. RELATED: Watkins Glen may produce a wild-card winner "Early on I just remember wanting to take on every challenge as a team that we possibly could to improve to be a bigger threat for the championship," he said. "Back then you had to try to be good everywhere because every track mattered for the championship. It was something that we really pursued heavily. I enjoyed it, even though I didn't grow up road racing a lot." The field of drivers capable of winning on a road course wasn't as deep as today, and the number of teams that expended the extra time and resources was fewer. Drivers such as Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd and Mark Martin thrived. Eventually, Gordon did as well. "We had a team and a car that was capable of being very competitive," Gordon, 44, said. "Especially Ray (Evernham, crew chief), back in those early days when the crew chiefs had more flexibility as to how you could find an edge over the competition, he worked hard on the transmissions, the braking, the set- ups and gave me everything that I needed to go out and push the limits of the car and get a lot out of it. "We started excelling at them." While his team ratcheted up its efforts, Gordon did as well. Before he began his NASCAR career, Gordon said he "was pursuing everything." "If somebody gave me an opportunity to get in a race car or go to a driving school, then I was packing my helmet … and heading that way. I did it up at Mosport (now Canadian Tire Motorsports Park) in Canada. I did it with Skip Barber (driving school) and I think after I started NASCAR I did the one out in Sonoma and I also did the one in Phoenix with Bob Bondurant. … "It was fun to do something different than ovals. I feel like ovals are what I'm best at and have been all the time, but I just was comfortable in going to a road course and doing something unique and different. Luckily I drove for a team that knew how to put good race cars underneath me not only on ovals, but (also) on road courses. That made the learning curve come much easier for me." Gordon has won at every active track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule save one -- Kentucky Speedway, which only came on board as a Sprint Cup venue five seasons ago. He won at tracks no longer on the schedule (Rockingham Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway) as well. Excelling on road courses isn't something he takes lightly as he prepares for his final Watkins Glen start. "I think when you look at the drivers and teams that outsiders look at in our sport of who is at the top of the list, I think if you can add a road course win to it, it separates you from the norm and puts you into an elite group," Gordon said. "When I look at my road-course wins and all the different tracks that I've won at, I think it just kind of adds to the stats of putting me into a unique category that I'm very proud of."
RELATED: NASCAR Home Tracks " More on Sargeant At 17, Dalton Sargeant is a little old for the school-time tradition of "show and tell." But when he returns to Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale just a week or so after entering his first NASCAR national series race, he should have a whale of a story to tell about what he did during summer vacation. Wauters Motorsports announced Tuesday that Sargeant, a member of the 2015-16 NASCAR Next development class, is scheduled to make his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut Aug. 19 at Bristol Motor Speedway. He'll drive the No. 5 GALT Toyota in the UNOH 200 presented by ZLOOP (8:30 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, MRN, SiriusXM). "This is a huge opportunity to go up against some of the big guys in the series," Sargeant said. "I think going into Bristol, it's going to be a tough race track, but definitely a good place to start with it only being half a mile. Looking at the team's experience, (team owner) Richie Wauters has a pretty good background at Bristol, so definitely looking forward to being able to go and run there for my first truck series start. Just looking to go out there and learn as much as I can really, and just try to have the best result." Since Wauters Motorsports will have no championship points as the team makes its first truck series effort of the season, Sargeant will need to qualify on speed for the 32-truck field or hope that 32 or fewer trucks are entered in the midweek 200-lapper. He tested the No. 5 Toyota at the .533-mile track Aug. 4 in preparation for his debut. Familiarity with Wauters' operation may help, too. Sargeant, a regular in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, first paired up with Wauters for an impressive runner-up finish last December in the prestigious Snowball Derby. Since then, the partnership has grown as Sargeant has gained experience wheeling Wauters' Super Late Model cars. "Richie's a really good crew chief and he's taught me a lot while I've been driving for him," Sargeant said. "Every time I feel like I'm in a car with Richie, I learn more and more, so it's really cool to be able to make my first truck start with him." Sargeant prevailed in the K&N West opener at Kern County Raceway Park to start the season on an up note. In his full-time ride with HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks on the K&N East circuit, he's finished second or third in half of the season's 10 races, logging "definitely too many runner- ups than I'd like to have," he said. Though he's come oh-so-close to victory, Sargeant said he's learned plenty, both on the driving side and through the NASCAR Next program. "I think the Next program, really what it's done is given me an opportunity to meet all the other NASCAR Next drivers and see what it's going to be like as you make the transition up through the multiple levels of NASCAR," Sargeant said. "It's just opened up my eyes and given me a perspective maybe some of the other drivers aren't able to see, just being able to work with some of the NASCAR media group as well as just being with some of the other drivers." RELATED: Meet the drivers of this year's NASCAR Next class Though he'll soon be dipping his toe into the national series waters, Sargeant still has designs on making a late charge for a championship in K&N East, where he ranks fourth with four races remaining. But soon, his other focus will be centered on hitting the books for his final year of high school. Even though his racing schedule often takes him far away from his Florida home, Sargeant said he's learned to balance the demands of school and his racing career. It's also helped to have a built-in rooting section of classmates offering support when he returns. "It can only help you more on the racing side of things to be able to have a good education," Sargeant said. "Whenever I'm at the race track, I'm always super-focused on just racing. I never really worry about the school side of things, but as soon as I'm away from the track, I give my attention 100 percent focused on my homework and my schoolwork aspects of everything, just to get all that done. Whatever I'm doing, it's one or the other -- I never try to mix the two because I always feel like it hurts me." Photos: Sargeant Motorsports
Ryan Reed post-race: 'I told him we can race like that and I'm totally fine' NEWTON, Iowa -- What opened up as a reasonably clean, meandering NASCAR XFINITY Series race turned into a regular Saturday night showdown, a swashbuckling smashfest in three acts that left bruises on fenders and egos alike at Iowa Speedway. After traveling 205 of an overtime 260 laps with a harmless three caution periods, short-track bedlam erupted in the late stages, potentially re-opening an old rift between teammates, ruffling the feathers of the defending series champion and sparking a post-race shove further back in the pack. The earliest sign that the U.S. Cellular 250 would not go quietly into the good Iowa night came with 21 laps left in regulation, when reigning champ Chase Elliott tangled with rookie Brandon Jones on the frontstretch in a contest for sixth place. Elliott, already frustrated by his late fade as the only front-runner to make a two-tire stop in the last exchange, keyed his radio to tell his JR Motorsports crew: "I'm pretty upset right now. That's all I'm going to say." Told that Jones accepted full blame over the his own radio, Elliott replied: "Yeeeeppp. They can tell that to the points tally." Jones was apologetic again after the race, telling NASCAR.com that he felt he was clear as he slid up the race track on the exit of Turn 4. He said he didn't have a chance to issue an apology in person with ninth-place finisher Elliott after the race. "I think he probably went back to his hauler, but I'll get back up with him (later) and try to explain what happened, for sure," said Jones, who finished 20th in just his second XFINITY start. "Me and Chase are really good friends and I didn't mean for that to happen, but can't do anything now about it. We'll go to the next one." The next one in terms of post-race flare- ups should make for another interesting team meeting this week at Roush Fenway Racing . Points leader Chris Buescher and teammate Bubba Wallace, who locked horns in May at Dover International Speedway, collided again with two laps left, pushing the race into overtime. Wallace, damaged in an earlier incident with Erik Jones entering pit road, caught the worst of it with fellow teammate Ryan Reed and the retiring Kenny Wallace sliding behind him in the aftermath. Wallace dismounted from his No. 6 Ford post-race, exchanged words with Buescher's crew chief Scott Graves, and leaned in to Buescher's window for a succinct post-race talk. "I think he said, 'good job.' I just grabbed him really quick," Wallace said. "We screwed up so bad in this race. It was miserable. I let my guys down. I got into Erik there on pit road and that put us in a corner. Just hate it, man. I screwed up tonight. Just paying for it." Asked about any potential tension within the Roush ranks, Wallace smiled and shrugged: "He's racing. We're racing hard. That's it. Nothing to it. I just told him good job and we'll go to Watkins Glen." Buescher, the winner here at the .875-mile track in May, was aiming for a rare Iowa season sweep, but on the first green-white-checkered attempt that followed, his No. 60 was heavily damaged by the sliding car of Brennan Poole . He limped home to a 13th-place finish, two spots behind Wallace, but retained his lead in the XFINITY standings. "Our guys did a heck of a job and we brought back a heck of a car to Iowa and we should've been in really good contention for this thing," Buescher said. "You know, it's just tough. We had so many restarts there late. Guys are just, they're tough -- just dive-bomb it in there and it's tough." Pressed for specifics about his contact with Wallace, Buescher declined to tell: "I'm not talking about that one. … Nope. Nothing to say." Caught in part of the crossfire was Reed, who soldiered to a 19th-place finish and had fireworks of his own to come. In trying to assess the hard-nosed racing between Buescher and Wallace, he said he felt certain the issues would be resolved in time. "They're both great drivers and I have a lot of respect for both of them and get along with both of 'em. I can't really get in the middle of it, but at the same time, I understand how it can be racing teammates," Reed said. "You want to run everyone as hard as you can, just seems, like you said, they're magnets and I'm not sure why it's like that. They're both great drivers, I have a lot of respect for them, and I'm sure they'll get through it." Reed's issues weren't over, though, as his No. 16 Ford scraped across the start-finish line in 19th-place at the checkered flag. Very little cool-down happened on the cool-down lap, with Reed marching over to the No. 4 Chevrolet and giving its driver, Ross Chastain , a swift shove. "There were a lot of wrecks there at the end. It's part of short-track racing," Reed said. "My getting at the 4, like I said in my other interview, it's kind of the pot calling the kettle black because I got into the 20 ( Kenny Wallace ), but the 20 was very unintentional. I just went up to the 4 and he just flat-out told me, 'Hey man, it was a green-white-checkered,' so I have a hard time with that. I have a really hard time with going in there and just intentionally banzai-ing someone and punting them out of the way. It's fine. I told him we can race like that and I'm totally fine with that." Chastain claimed said he wanted to see video of the incident before making a judgment call. "I haven't seen a replay yet, so I can't say too much. I don't want to because I don't want to overstep what I don't know," Chastain told NASCAR.com. "What I remember -- and it might be completely wrong -- is I got to the bottom of (Turn) 1 and the 16 was right outside of me. I thought we were pretty low on the race track and we might've gotten together a little bit. It looks like there's a little mark on my fender, and I just got by him and there was mayhem and chaos everywhere. I don't know. Until I see a replay, I don't know. "Me and him have raced hard all year. It's good for us that we're racing against guys like that because people think we shouldn't be, but we are. When we come to a track like Iowa, we can show what this team's made out of. I'm proud of my guys. I hate it that he got torn up, but I didn't feel like I was too in the wrong, but I'll have to watch a replay to see." FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Ryan Blaney talks in Victory Lane after winning the UNOH 200 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Moments that changed the course of the 36th race of the 2014 season
Moments that changed the course of the 30th race of the 2014 season
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