Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – BRISTOL, TN – If enthusiasm is as contagious as the saying goes, Kyle Larson could pretty easily pass it along to the NASCAR’s entire Monster Energy NASCAR Cup garage at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway this weekend.
The 25-year old Californian smiled widely Friday morning just anticipating Sunday’s Food City 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“Bristol is my favorite track and I always get excited to come here, so really looking forward to the weekend,” said Larson, who drives Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 McDonald’s Camaro ZL1.
And that’s saying something. Especially considering Larson has never won at Bristol. His finishes, however, don’t necessarily reflect his affection.
Larson is very – very – good at the high-banked half-miler. Last year he started both races on the front row – winning the pole for this Spring race and leading the first 202 laps. He started on the outside pole in the Fall night race. He finished sixth last April and ninth, last August – his best full season Bristol effort.
“I think we, or I, have to get better when the track kind of changes from the first half of the race into the second half,” Larson analyzed. “It seems like every time I’ve been here, whether it’s Xfinity (Series) or Cup, I can pretty much dominate the first half and then I guess, I come back to everybody else.
“And it seems like I always make mistakes on pit road and stuff like that. Just got to clean it all up and that will give me a better shot at getting a win here. And then you’ve got to get somewhat lucky being on the outside lane to restart.”
Attitude truly is important – whether it’s developing an appreciation for short tracks, superspeedways or road courses that punctuate a schedule more heavily dominated by 1.5-mile speedways. And attitude has never been a problem for Larson, one of the most well-liked Cup drivers on track and off track.
Some drivers fret over the aggressive, bunch-racing high skillset that short tracks typically provide. Larson loves it.
“That makes it fun,” he said. “You don’t really have any time to relax. Lap traffic, it’s so much fun here and you catch in 15 laps or whatever. Then you are just carving through it. You just catch a guy and you go to wherever they are not. It’s fun to have options like that.
“I guess I’ve been saying it a lot, but I just get really excited about this place because it kind of races like a dirt track and it’s a lot of fun.”
That may be exactly what Larson could use too. Seven races into the season, he has a pair of top-threes (third at Las Vegas and runner-up at California’s Auto Club Speedway). A ninth place at Atlanta is his only other top-10. His 54 laps led at Phoenix (where he finished 18th) are his only laps out front so far this year.
A disappointing 36th place finish after a crash at Texas Motor Speedway last weekend dropped him to 10th in the standings, but he remains very much a playoff favorite.
Larson and his fellow Chevrolet drivers are hoping to get the “bowtie” back in victory lane – for only the second time this year following Austin Dillon’s last lap pass for a season-opening Daytona 500 victory.
“I feel like we have pretty good speed in our cars,” Larson said. “We haven’t had a lot of luck to go with it, but I feel like our average running position has been okay at the tracks we are typically good at. ….
“I feel like we are close. We still have a way to go to compete with the No. 4 (three-time 2018 winner Kevin Harvick). I think he is in his own league right now and then the No. 18 (last week’s winner Kyle Busch), their team is good and Kyle is just really, really good.
“So, I feel like we are fourth fifth ‘best-ish’ .. I don’t know, it’s hard to say, but we’ve got to get finishing a little bit better and click off a win and then I think we can consider ourselves a favorite again.”