August 10, 2018 / 10:44 PM / 4 months ago

NASCAR notebook: Suddenly Hendrick has Larson in search of speed

BROOKLYN, Michigan - The racing world took notice when Chase Elliott won his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Watkins Glen International last weekend.

Aug 10, 2018; Brooklyn, MI, USA; NASCAR Cup Series driver Chase Elliott (9) during qualifying for the Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan International Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

One person in particular who noticed? Kyle Larson.

To the driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi racing Chevrolet, Elliott’s victory was emblematic of the progress Hendrick Motorsports has made in recent weeks with their Chevys.

Though he started the season with a clear speed advantage, Larson has seen the Hendrick organization close the gap. With the Chase just around the corner, that gives Larson pause.

“I’d like to be making as big gains as what, say, the Hendrick guys have,” Larson acknowledged on Friday at Michigan International Speedway, venue for Sunday’s Consumers Energy 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Radio). “But I feel like we started off way better than they did. So, they’ve had more room to get better.

“But I feel like they’ve kind of surpassed us maybe a little bit the last few weeks. And there are obviously other teams that are better than we are, too. I feel like we’re getting our stuff better every week.

Larson swept both Michigan races last year. This week, he’s commuting between MIS and the Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals for winged sprint cars. Larson was pleased with the speed his No. 42 Chevy showed in opening practice at Michigan on Friday.

“We just keep getting better, and there are some good tracks for us in the playoffs,” said Larson, who was eighth fastest in the session but ultimately qualified 17th. “If we could just get some luck one of these times in the playoffs, maybe we can make a run at the championship. So we’ve just got to keep working hard and thinking about what it takes to get better and better every week.

“I feel like we have the right group of people at the race track and the race shop that we can do that. It’s all about just progressing and getting better. I feel like we are definitely doing that, but there are other teams that maybe have made a bigger step than we have.”

FOR GRANT ENFINGER, A WIN WOULD BE NICE — BUT IT IS NOT NECESSARY

The math is as simple as 5-3-2.

There are five drivers who have qualified for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series playoffs by way of a race win: defending series champion Johnny Sauter, Brett Moffitt, Noah Gragson, Justin Haley and Ben Rhodes.

There are currently three playoff spots available on points, with Grant Enfinger, Stewart Friesen and two-time series champion Matt Crafton currently in position to claim them.

There are two races left in the NCWTS regular season. That means two more chances for a new winner to make the playoffs with a victory — and potentially to knock out one of the drivers in line for a points berth.

Enfinger is in the most enviable position. He’s third overall in the standings, nine points ahead of Friesen and 39 ahead of Crafton. Accordingly, the driver of the No. 98 ThorSport Racing Ford isn’t planning to drive defensively in the final two regular-season races at Michigan and Bristol.

Nor is Enfinger taking anything for granted.

“I’m definitely not comfortable with our situation,” Enfinger said after opening practice for Saturday’s Corrigan Oil 200 at Michigan (1 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). “I wish we were locked in ... to breeze through these next two weeks and focus on the playoffs.

“We can’t really do that, but we’re not in a bad spot, either. At the end of the day, we just need to keep doing what we’ve been doing to get us to this point, and I think we’ll be all right. Really, it’s kind of business as usual for us.”

Ultimately, Enfinger will secure a playoff spot if he stays ahead of both Friesen and Crafton in the standings — no matter what else happens.

SHORT STROKES

Paul Menard has a large deficit to overcome and little time to do it if he hopes to make the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Chase. The driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford is 17th in the standings, 72 points behind Alex Bowman in 15th, the last position currently eligible for a playoff berth. Consecutive finishes of 21st at Pocono and 28th at Watkins Glen didn’t help Menard’s cause. “We’re in a hole right now,” he said, “but I feel really good about these races coming up.” That’s understandable. Michigan in particular is one of Menard’s best tracks. Five of his 20 career top fives have come here. ...

The Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas are continuing to show speed as regular season winds down. Denny Hamlin topped the speed chart in opening practice on Friday with a lap at 202.230 mph. Teammates Daniel Suarez and Kyle Busch were third and fifth fastest, respectively, as speeds picked up throughout the session. Hamlin would go on to edge Busch for the pole, while Suarez qualified last after hitting the wall during Round 1. ...

Ty Dillon was busiest in opening practice, running 15 laps. No other driver clocked more than 11, and most were content with five circuits or fewer as they prepped for Friday afternoon’s qualifying session.

— NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media.

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