Thursday’s roundup: Diversity program bears fruit
Marketing sports stars is predicated on an important fact: Success. Gimmicks fade. Winning remains a constant marker.
So kudos to Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez. They are the perfect ad, streaming every weekend, for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Series.
As graduates of the program, Larson and Suarez are on the honor roll. Larson won at Fontana last weekend and leads the Monster Energy Cup standings with a 29-point cushion in front of Chase Elliott. Suarez, driving a Cup car competitively for the first time in his career, is 19th in the standings, ahead of established veterans including Dale Earnhardt Jr. (21) and teammate Matt Kenseth (25).
The program was conceived in the 1990s to attract minority and female individuals to the sport on all levels. But it’s hard to market stars of a pit crew, hence the importance of drivers making an impact.
Although other graduates — including rising star Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. — have found success in the Xfinity Series, Larson in particular has definitely established himself as a young man with the “it” factor.
Larson, 24, had previously become the first NASCAR Driver for Diversity program graduate to win a NASCAR Cup Series race, winning in Michigan last August. Sunday’s victory just solidifies the fact that he isn’t going to be a one-hit wonder.
“I was talking to someone this morning about how everybody wants to compare these drivers coming up to Jeff (Gordon) or to Tony (Stewart) or this guy, that guy, whoever they want to compare to,” owner Chip Ganassi said Sunday. “They always say, ‘Well, Jimmie Johnson only won one Xfinity race. Everybody has these sort of one-liners that there’s no answer to. They want to compare everybody.”
In other words, it’s complex, and everybody is his own man with his own pace.
Suarez, 25, has competed only in five Cup races after winning the Xfinity title last season. He was forced into an accelerated pace with the unexpected retirement of Carl Edwards shortly before the start of the season.
Joe Gibbs Racing turned to Suarez as the obvious replacement, and he already has delivered two Top 10s, including a seventh-place finish at Fontana.
“We have to keep working,” he said at Fontana. “I know that there is room to improve still, but for now we’ll take the top 10.”
Larson’s learning curve is far less challenging. He already is there, with 116 Cup starts dating to 2013. But this has been his breakout season, finishing second in three previous races — at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix before wining in Southern California.
“It’s really cool to see kind of the future of the sport and them all running up front,” Larson said, alluding to other young drivers such as Elliott and Erik Jones. “I’m sure NASCAR is really happy about that and it’s fun to race with all of them on the track because I feel like we’ve all gotten a little bit added aggression and excitement.”
Spread the word: The Kids are All Right.
Brad Keselowski recently addressed the impact of penalties after his team failed post-race inspection at Phoenix International Raceway. The team was docked 35 driver and owner points, and crew chief Paul Wolfe was fined $65,000 and suspended for three races.
“To lose a guy like that, it definitely hurts,” said Keselowski (Rochester Hills), who nevertheless holds fourth place in the standings.
“He’s a great asset to our team, but this is one of those setbacks that I think every team faces and we’re just going to have to get through it. It looks like it’s going to be a handful of races and we’ll do the best we can during that time.”
Ninjas at Daytona
The refurbished Daytona International Speedway has become more than just a racing hub. Check out upcoming episodes of “American Ninja Warrior.”
The series — an Emmy-nominated sports competition filled with obstacle courses — will come to Daytona as a filming location on April 7-8.