By: Athlon Sports
Kyle Larson has arrived as an elite driver at the Cup Series level
Even in his off-week from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Kyle Larson continues to pull all of the right cards. That's just the kind of racing season the 24-year-old Californian is having: up front, or near it, every step of the way.
Larson drove to victory in an off-week Saturday night in a sprint car feature race at Placerville Speedway - the Northern California track where he made his debut in the winged open-wheel machines nearly 10 years ago. It was one of 25 non-NASCAR starts that Larson is allowed annually under his current contract with Chip Ganassi Racing and piled more credence on Cup team owner Chip Ganassi's belief that the grassroots level racing is only emboldening his budding superstar.
Just look at Larson's results so far this season in Ganassi's No. 42 Cup car. There's the home state win at Auto Club Speedway and four second-place finishes in seven starts. The two blemishes otherwise? A 12th-place finish in the Daytona 500 (a race that Larson led at the white flag) and a 17th-place finish at Martinsville Speedway. Consider that Larson has finished outside the top-10 at the end of a mid-race stage only once in 14 tries, and you'll quickly start to see why he owns a 17-point margin on second-place Chase Elliott in the regular season standings and 40 points on Martin Truex Jr. in third.
And if you want to dig into Larson's XFINITY results, he's got a nice run going in NASCAR's second-tier series thanks to finishes of third (Atlanta Motor Speedway), second (Las Vegas Motor Speedway) and first (Auto Club Speedway) in the three races he's entered.
It certainly could be a lot worse and Larson is acutely aware of that. After his second-place finish in the Cup series' most recent outing on April 9 at Texas Motor Speedway, Larson was asked if his win at Auto Club had made not getting to victory lane at every opportunity a bit more digestible. "They're all kind of easy to swallow, just because we have a lot of speed in our cars right now," Larson said. "You know, seconds don't suck that bad. Yeah, I'd like to have five wins right now, but four seconds and a win isn't terrible."
That's the response of a driver working with the boundless confidence that fast race cars bring. Larson, who scored his first career Cup win just last season at Michigan International Speedway, is no doubt driving some of the fastest equipment to ever consistently emerge from Ganassi's NASCAR enterprise. The lone competitor to that claim is maybe Sterling Marlin's 2001 season in Ganassi's No. 40 - a campaign that saw Marlin win twice and earn 12 top-5 finishes before a neck injury removed his valid chance at winning the season championship.
"We knew, or we thought, we'd start the year off good. I don't think we thought we'd start the year off this good. I'm extremely thankful to be part of Chip Ganassi Racing and a part of everybody's hard work at the shop and on the road crew. It's been a lot of fun to show up to the racetrack and be fast each and every time we hit the track."
The difference goes beyond just what the Ganassi outfit can build before getting to the track, Larson said.
"Even times when I feel like we don't end practice very good, they make great adjustments overnight and we're a lot better in the race," Larson said.
The results and the demeanor indicate this streak of success for Larson -- long thought to be a driver who could join the ranks of names like Johnson, Gordon and Stewart -- may be the first display of dominance that will soon feel commonplace around NASCAR's tracks. At the very least, Larson seems to on the precipice of a substantial chance to truly compete for a Cup series title with a Chevrolet that's consistently fast and a new points structure that is allowing his early season success to boost his playoff odds. Larson, though, is doing what racers do: looking dead ahead at his next green flag.
"Yeah, it's fun. It's fun right now, and hopefully we keep it going," Larson said. "I don't know what it takes to improve because I just drive the cars, but yeah, we're going to Bristol, which is a track that I run really, really good at, so I'm excited about that, and hopefully can find some good luck there finally."