Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Over it. Motoring on. Looking up.
Kyle Larson conceded that while his shocking and abrupt departure from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs last Fall stung for a while, he’s over it. Ready to move on. Prepared to one-up the circumstance.
The popular 25-year old Chip Ganassi Racing star offered smiles at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Daytona 500 Media Day on Wednesday, shaking his head as reporters asked him about the stunning engine failure at Kansas Speedway late in the 2017 playoffs that eliminated him from championship contention. He had been ranked first or second in the standings for 24 weeks – won a career high four times, and added five pole positions, entering the Kansas race with a hefty points cushion that made him a mere footnote in the “elimination” discussion.
And then only 73 laps into the 267-cutoff race, Larson’s engine let go. His championship hopes gone.
Or more aptly, postponed.
“I don’t think about it at all,” Larson said. “I’m pretty good at forgetting things, I guess. In a good way. I mean, honestly, I was bummed out after Kansas, still am, if I think about it, but I don’t think about it, so I don’t get too bummed out. I was kind of over it a couple days later and moved on and ready to go win the race the next weekend.
“I mean, there’s nothing you can really do about a blown engine. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t anybody on the team’s fault. It just happens, and you move on from it.”
Larson would prefer talking about the preseason championship favorites. He is one of them.
“This is a different media day than normal, just because. …this is the first year I’ve been considered a championship favorite from day one,” Larson acknowledged with a smile. “Last year we showed people that we could be a contender, where now this year people are pointing and looking at us that we could potentially be a championship favorite.
“That’s cool, and definitely is somewhere I’ve always wanted to be in my NASCAR career is to be a contender every week. We still have to get the season started, though. You never really know how you’re going to be until you get through Daytona and get through the first month, but it is neat to be considered one of the favorites already.”
One of the sport’s great natural talents, Larson has long reminded fans of “old school” racers like his friend, three-time Cup champ Tony Stewart. Like Stewart, Larson cut his teeth racing sprints cars and midgets on short tracks around the country.
And as he has each year of Cup competition, Larson has dialed back a bit from his extracurricular schedule, but said he plans to compete approximately 40 times a year in addition to his Cup duties in the No. 42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet Camaro.
During the offseason, he raced midgets — and won — in New Zealand and then came back stateside and competed in the Chili Bowl.
Listening to Larson on Wednesday, it’s easy to see his sights are firmly set on the Cup championship this year.
And that begins in Sunday’s Daytona 500, a race Larson led at the white-flag last year before heart-breakingly running out of gas on the final lap. He had a pair of top-10s here (seventh in the Daytona 500 and sixth in the July race) in 2016.
“Well, I think my first year for sure, probably some of the second year, I was really aggressive and always trying to like run in the top lane and run in the middle lane just to try and always get runs, where I feel like I’m to the point now where I feel better just running in the bottom lane,” Larson said. “I feel like it’s less stressful down there. You typically miss more wrecks down there, knock on wood. And I feel like since I’ve done that and just not really been that aggressive, I’ve been in contention more at the end of the races. That will be my plan again, just to relax.”
And celebrate later.
“It would be awesome. Any time you can start your year off strong at the first race of the season is a big deal. We were close last year to being the Daytona 500 winner and ran out of fuel and came short.
“If we could put ourselves in position again and win the biggest race of our year, that would be amazing. And to leave here as a point leader would always be a good thing.”