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Kyle Larson leads twisting NASCAR road show back to Sonoma

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Kyle Larson (42) leads Erik Jones (77) during the NASCAR FireKeepers Casino 400 race at Michigan International Speedway on June 18. Larson eventually took the checkered flag.
(Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

When NASCAR’s frequent fluctuations with rules and points are juxtaposed against the redundancy of left turn after left turn after left turn, the stark contrast can create a contradictory landscape:

Is anything really changing?

Appropriately this weekend, the Monster Energy Cup season heads back to California for Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350 on Sonoma Raceway’s 2.52-mile road course, where at least the drivers will be turning right as well as left as NASCAR Nation touts its rising stars.

Fresh faces in Victory Lane precipitate encouragement that concerns over declining broadcast ratings and attendance figures can be blunted by the new stars, especially with the retirements Jeff Gordon two years ago and Tony Stewart after last year. Add Carl Edwards’ stunning decision to walk away before this campaign and the impending departure of icon Dale Earnhardt Jr. after this year, and it’s imperative that young compelling competitors step into the spotlight.

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Standings leader Kyle Larson’s victory near Detroit at Michigan International Speedway for Chip Ganassi Racing on Sunday is an example of what NASCAR would seem to need. The 24-year-old Japanese-American driver from Elk Grove — that’s just about 80 miles from the Sonoma course — can offer appeal to potential new fans, young and old. Already this season he has won the other California race back in March in Fontana, so Larson could pump up NASCAR’s standing in the West with a Golden State sweep during a season in which he has frequently been in contention.

“We’ve been so close to so many other wins,” the 24-year-old Larson said. “This is our second Cup win of the year, but we’ve had six second-place finishes. All in all, it’s a good season so far and we’ll continue to keep building on what we’ve got.”

And big-time first-time wins this year by 29-year-old Ricky Stenhouse (at Talladega) and by 27-year-old Austin Dillon (in NASCAR’s longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte) provided evidence that there’s reason to ride with the younger guys.

“I keep saying that NASCAR is in a great, great spot,” Larson said. “Even with Dale Jr. retiring this year, I think it’s a huge opportunity for our sport. Dale Jr. has probably three-quarters of our fan base. You might lose a few thousand of his fans that might disappear. The rest of them are going to pick new drivers. I think new rivalries are going to be built. It’s going to bring some excitement back to the racetrack.”

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But it can be helpful to check the brakes before rushing headlong into a curving future.

Since NASCAR went to a postseason format in 2004, there have been multiple iterations for accumulating points, including an elimination process the past three years that put a premium on actually winning for the 16 drivers who qualify for the postseason.

And with only 11 of the 26 regular-season races remaining, the standings feature only two newcomers who have staked claims to the postseason: Stenhouse and 23-year-old Ryan Blaney (who won two weeks ago at Pocono).

Were the postseason to start Sunday, Jimmie Johnson (three wins this year) would be right near the front in his pursuit of a record eighth season title. And past season champions such as Brad Keselowski (two wins this year), Kurt Busch (one), Kyle Busch (0), Kevin Harvick (0) and Matt Kenseth (0) would be gearing for a run at another crown too.

Don’t count on the undulations of the Sonoma course to open a path to the postseason for an up-and-comer. Starting with 2016, here are the past four winners in Northern California: Stewart, Kyle Busch, Edwards and veteran Martin Truex Jr. (who is just five points behind leader Larson in the standings). Even the recent winners from the Cup’s other road course at New York’s Watkins Glen in August — Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — are established veterans other than 2014 winner AJ Allmendinger.

But for right now, Larson is heading home as the leader of the pack, and he is holding court in Victory Lane.

“I’m happy that I seem to be head of that youth movement right now,” Larson said. “With Ryan Blaney getting the win last week; you look at Chase [Elliott] finishing second. Joey is a veteran, but he’s only a couple years older than I am. Then Stenhouse, Austin Dillon, Erik Jones, [Daniel] Suarez, so many drivers in great equipment right now that are running up front.

“I think everybody is kind of nervous about where it’s going to be, but I think for a lot of us, our fan bases are going to grow as well as NASCAR’s fan base.”

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Another youngster to watch

Among NASCAR’s new young drivers is 19-year-old William Byron, who received a huge endorsement after Hamlin edged him by a Michigan record-tight 0.012 seconds for the checkered flag in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.

“Let’s see: When I was 19, I think I was working at Subway making sandwiches. That or working at my dad’s trailer shop,” Hamlin said. “I can’t relate, honestly. To be at this level at the age that he is, it’s a huge advantage for him for the next 20 years, 25 years. He’s going to be starting his curve a lot earlier. I’m sure by the time he’s 24, 25, he’ll be contending for Cup championships.”

But don’t forget the champ

Defending Cup champ Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports announced a three-year contract extension through 2020 for the seven-time season king last weekend in Michigan.

“I’ve never honestly been driven by stats and I’ve said it so many times, but it’s hard to ignore where I sit on the wins list and not let my competitive spirit kick in and want more,” said the 41-year-old Johnson, who is tied for sixth on the career list with 83 wins. “Certainly, I would love to climb further up the ladder there. Eight championships, I would love to stand alone at that.”

sports@latimes.com


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