BROOKLYN, Mich. — Let them race.
Race-car drivers are adrenaline junkies and competitors. They want to race. They want to win.
Motorsports is littered with times when owners and drivers don’t see eye to eye. Two of the most common times: When drivers want to moonlight in another racing series and when owners tell a driver how to race a teammate.
Neither of the owners of the top cars contending for the win Sunday at Michigan International Speedway interfered with their drivers’ plans.
Furniture Row Racing owner Barney Visser let his drivers race for the win. They earned respect.
Chip Ganassi allowed his driver Kyle Larson to go race a sprint car Saturday night in the Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals. He earned the Pure Michigan 400 trophy.
“I was questioning myself in the middle of the race when I see us back there — we didn’t have too good of a start and we were sort of mired in the middle of the top 10 most of the day and not by any stretch near the front,” Ganassi said.
“I had concerns and I was getting ready to take a lot of heat in the media if we didn’t have a good day.”
Larson saved his owner from grief as he pitted under caution with 12 laps remaining, took four tires, and restarted eighth. He got to fourth in the four laps under green, just getting by Chase Elliott when the caution came out to allow him to restart on the outside of the second row on the what would prove to be the final restart.
With fresher tires on the restart with two laps left, he took advantage of his bump of leader Martin Truex Jr., who then spun his tires, and Larson dove inside of him for the lead to cruise to the win.
Obviously, Larson wasn’t feeling fatigued from getting to the track around 2 a.m. Sunday morning. Larson, who rallied to finish second Saturday night to 10-time Knoxville Nationals winner Donny Schatz, capped what he felt was a great weekend.
“I woke up this morning extremely confident about today, just being able to race last night and have a lot of fun and get close to winning,” Larson said. “I woke up in a really, really good mood and a lot of confidence, too.
“I felt like I was going to win when I woke up this morning, and then we got to the midpoint of the race, and I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t think I’m going to win now.’ We just kept fighting and got it done.”
Larson doesn’t think he would have had such a positive outlook about Sunday without racing Saturday night.
“I would not have been in a sour mood — I would have been in a sad mood,” Larson said. “I would have had a box of tissues next to my bed.”
As far as team owners and orders to drivers, there obviously was none to Truex, who didn’t seem to care that his Furniture Row Racing teammate Erik Jones was running second to him for the latter third of the race.
A win for Jones would have put him in the playoffs, but Truex — who already has four wins this year — scoffed at any idea he would let Jones win. He said the five playoff points he would have earned with the win also are important as those points could help him advance through the playoffs.
“That’s not how we race,” Truex said cutting off a question about the possibility of letting Jones win. “Nobody out there races that way. Nobody is going to give a Cup win up. They’re too hard to get.”
Truex, who finished second with Jones coming in third, knows all about how NASCAR feels about team orders. He was the innocent victim at Michael Waltrip Racing, when NASCAR determined his teammates brought out the caution and pitted late in the 2013 Richmond race to help him make the NASCAR playoffs. NASCAR docked Truex enough points to keep him out of the playoffs.
“We don’t have team orders,” Truex said. “Nobody lets each other win. [Jones] is going to win some races. His turn will come.”
Many view Jones as a potential challenger (among others) to Larson for championships over the next couple decades.
The 25-year-old Larson is considered the best young talent in the sport, and the win Sunday, the fourth of his career and third consecutive at Michigan, proved he can triumph despite not having the best car — or the most sleep.
Crew chief Chad Johnston, used to having a driver who likes to go off and run other events as the former crew chief for Tony Stewart, certainly didn’t mind Larson’s sprint-car escapades but Ganassi has it written in Larson’s contract that he can’t race the night before he is on track in a Cup car.
The Ganassi executive team convinced the owner that allowing Larson to race Knoxville would help his brand and be great for motorsports. But for the record: It won’t happen again this year.
Larson has no additional sprint-car races scheduled this year — Ganassi limits him to 25, and he’s already run 24. Ganassi seemed happy about that and added the 3 p.m. ET Michigan start helped convince him to allow Larson to race.
“I’m out at the end of the diving board a lot of the times, and so I appreciate when Kyle steps up and does what he did today. … When you’re a team owner in any sport, it’s easy to break your star athlete and slow them down,” Ganassi said.
“It’s a lot harder to speed them up. I just don’t want to do something to slow them down. You run the risk of that when you have a talent like that that wants to go drive other kinds of cars.”
In other words, Larson earned five playoff points and a trophy, but he didn’t necessarily earn more Saturday night sprint-car races.
“Kyle understands more and more the gravity of the situation as you drill into the fall or late summer — this was his last sprint-car race of the season,” Ganassi said. “So that’s something we’ll talk about over the winter.
“There’s no connection to … how you do it the next time.”