Larry McReynolds is the guy to turn to for expert NASCAR analysis. Having worked in the booth for NASCAR on FOX for the last 16 seasons – and before then as a crew chief since the mid-1980s – Larry has seen the sport change massively. He spoke with me to share some memories from his career, as well looking ahead to the future for the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series in 2017 and beyond.
Why should Brits tune into the upcoming Daytona 500?
To me, all motorsport events are exciting. But when you think about 40 drivers, in 40 race cars, running around a high banked 2.5-mile racetrack for 500 miles, sometimes 3 wide for 6 or 7 rows, knowing one little slip by one driver, can take out a dozen or so others, it ramps up the tension.
You look at how unpredictable this race has become and how close the finishes have been. Last year, Denny Hamlin beat Martin Truex Jr by basically the length of a front bumper, thousands of a second, after 500 miles. In the last 10 Daytona 500s, we’ve had 9 different winners. It’s like a 200 miles per hour chess match.
We do things a little backwards, whilst most sports have their biggest event at the end of the season, the NASCAR season pretty much kicks off with it’s biggest race.
What are your favourite memories from your time covering NASCAR on FOX?
A lot of my most memorable moments come from the Daytona 500. I look back to 2007, when Mark Martin, trying to win his first 500, almost had a drag race with Kevin Harvick from turn 4 back to finish line – Harvick beating him by just a few inches. Behind them we had cars crashing all the way to the line. Clint Bowyer actually finished the race upside down!
I recall last year, where we had 3 or 4 lead changes on the final lap and also, it was memorable for many reasons, but the 2001 Daytona 500, our first broadcast on FOX stands out. Our first day on the job saw Michael Waltrip get his first ever Cup Series win, with his brother Darrell calling the final lap. But unfortunately, a memory we would like to forget is that Michael’s car owner, and the guy I won the 1998 Daytona 500 with, Dale Earnhardt, lost his life in a turn 4 crash on that lap.
Before FOX, you worked with several NASCAR greats including Dale Earnhardt and Davey Allison. What do miss most from working on the pit box?
I do miss it. I was there for essentially 18 years. Winning the Daytona 500 with Davey Allison in 1992 and then coming back 6 years later and winning with Dale Earnhardt stands out, but I never won a championship. I came really close a couple of times and that’s a little bit of a void.
But I walk by those two trophies in my office every single day and grin. If you ever win the 500 as a driver or a crew chief or even a tyre changer, it doesn’t stay with you the rest of the year, or the rest of your career, it stays with you for the rest of your life. Even now, I still get introduced as a 2-time Daytona 500 winning crew chief and to know that was those two drivers’ only 500 win – unfortunately that neither of them are with us today – makes it even more special.
2017 sees the introduction of the new segment format in races. How do you think this will affect strategy throughout the season?
I know sometimes we get scared of change. We’re creatures of habit and that makes change a little bit scary. But I have dissected these changes for 2017 left, right, up and down, and I can’t see anything but good coming out of it. I want to give it a few races, because it truly is different. We can’t lose sight of the fact it’s still a race, with pit stop strategy, and there’s still going to be a guy in Victory Lane at the end of the day who wins the trophy.
With these stages now, we have two known caution periods. The crew chiefs can plan on that, it’s not like the race is going to stop, it’s just that they’re going to throw a caution, at those two set points in the race, and drivers running in the top 10 are going to receive some points.
The biggest thing we anticipate that this is going to do, I don’t like the phrase “make the drivers race harder”, I don’t think you can ask them to race harder than they do now, but I think they will race differently, that will provide more excitement in the early stages of the race compared to before where things when into a bit of a lull as the laps wound down.
With that in mind, and considering the reduction in downforce for 2017, which teams and drivers do you see adapting to the changes best?
Of course, you never know until you get out there and start racing, but the new aerodynamic rules don’t come in until race 2 at Atlanta. The aero at Daytona and Talladega, the two restrictor plate tracks, will be the same as last year. So, we have to wait until Atlanta, Vegas, Phoenix and Auto Club to really know, but it just seems that, if I go off past history, the teams and drivers that seem to adapt quickest to change are the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas, especially Kyle Busch.
Of course, I don’t think you can ever take your eye off Jimmie Johnson and that 48 team, who won their 7th championship last year. I would almost want to add Kevin Harvick and the 4 car into the mix, but the other thing that they have to deal with, as well as the aero changes, is the change for 2017 from Chevrolet to Ford. They have even more changes going on, so the jury is out on them a little bit, depending on how quickly they pick up and move on with the change in engine manufacturer as well.
How do you see Monster Energy changing the sport over the next few years?
As I said, change can be scary, and Monster Energy, in the 60+ year history of the NASCAR Cup Series, are only our 3rd series sponsor. I guess, knowing the history of Monster Energy, that they are used to and very familiar with motorsport, that it’s going to bring some new attention to our sport. It’ll maybe do what we’ve been trying to accomplish and get some of the younger generation involved in our sport.
It seems like everything they’ve ever done in motorsport has truly been successful, and ramped up popularity. So I’d like to think the same thing will happen with the Cup Series.
If Lewis Hamilton left F1 to try NASCAR for a year, how do you think he’d fare?
You would think with how talented a driver he is, that he would come over here and do well. But all I can do is base things off past history. There have been a lot of open-wheel guys that have come our way, and not been successful.
You look at [Juan Pablo] Montoya, a 2-time Indy 500 winner, 7-time Grand Prix winner, pretty much competitive in everything he ever did. I won’t say he wasn’t competitive over here, he won a couple of road course races, but I think he found it more challenging, from a competition standpoint, than what he was used to.
You look at drivers not just from Formula One, but open-wheel, that came over here and found things to be a bit of a challenge. These cars don’t have a lot of downforce, the power-to-weight ratio is much greater, they don’t stop very well.
I wouldn’t be dumb enough to say that he would not come over here and do well, but I do think he would find it quite the challenge.
Fox continues to be the network to tune into to see NASCAR racing, what can we expect from you and the team over the next few months?
We never stop working on new things. We try to be careful not to reinvent the wheel with our broadcast from one year to the next, because we feel like we have a solid broadcast as it is. However, at the same time, we know we can’t just sit still and wait on the next season to come.
I’ve been working feverishly, especially over the last 3 to 4 months, on our virtual cutaway car, adding a lot of new items and elements to it. We’ve been working on a lot of new aero animations, to be able to tell the story of this low-downforce aero package that we’ll be racing with from Atlanta.
We try to fine tune things, including bringing better pictures and better sound to the viewer at home. So we’re pretty excited to get started.
Finally, who is your tip to win the Daytona 500 and the 2017 Monster Energy Cup?
I’d almost feel better telling you what number to pick on a roulette wheel! As I said earlier, that’s how unpredictable the Daytona 500 has become. You can have the fastest, best handling car, perfect pit stops, the best strategy, and as was the case in 2007, the outcome of your day could be decided between turn 4 and the chequered flag.
I guess, if I look back on the 4 restrictor plate races from last year, I’ll go with a guy who is yet to win a Daytona 500. He won 2 of those races in 2016, including the Daytona race in July and that’s Brad Keselowski in the Penske Ford.
As far as the championship is concerned, that’s almost as tough as picking the Daytona 500 winner, with the new race format and the playoffs and the elimination races at the end. I’m going to say Jimmie Johnson will go back to back and get his 8th Cup championship, something that nobody else has ever accomplished.