Column: Newfound Speed Has Kyle Larson Optimistic For NASCAR Playoff Run

Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – The speed Kyle Larson found at Darlington Raceway, where he led 284 of 367 laps before finishing third, gave the driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet a boost of confidence heading into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

But what was the source of the newfound speed? Larson said something clicked during an Aug. 27-28 test at Richmond Raceway.

“I felt like we had been… I wouldn’t say struggling, but we weren’t running where I wanted to run or the team wanted to run,” Larson said on Thursday at Playoffs media day at South Point Hotel, Casino and Spa. “We were still getting top 10s and stuff, but I didn’t see us being fast enough to contend for a championship.

“We had a really good test at Richmond. Normally when you go to a test, it feels like a waste of two days. But there, I felt like we learned three or four good things, and we implemented it into our Darlington car and dominated the race. We didn’t get the win, but we dominated.”

Richmond is a .75-mile short track, Darlington a 1.366-mile intermediate speedway, but Larson trusted crew chief Chad Johnston to incorporate what he found at Richmond into the car that was being readied to run at Darlington.

“I trust Chad,” Larson said. “And I remember that, right after we made the run where he made a change, he was immediately calling our car chief at the shop to get it put on the Darlington car.

“He and the engineers have the brains, and, anyway, we’re turning left…”

AUSTIN DILLON TRIES TO BUILD A SINISTER ALLIANCE AMONG YOUNG GUNS

At a fan event during media day at South Point, Daytona 500 champion Austin Dillon took the stage with five other young Playoff drivers—Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones.

Those drivers enter the Playoffs at a considerable disadvantage to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ so-called “Big Three”–Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.—who collectively have won 17 of the 26 regular-season races and have racked up the three highest totals of Playoff points.

Dillon offered a practical, edgy and ostensibly facetious solution to the Big Three problem.

“These drivers up here, we should just make a deal,” Dillon said. “If we just wreck the Big Three the next couple of weeks, we’ll have a lot better shot of getting to Homestead.”

After the laughter and the applause from the audience died down, Bowman chimed in.

“I’m not scared,” he said.

“If we split the profits from the championship, it would go a long way,” Dillon responded. “Our odds in Vegas would go way up if they’re not in it at Homestead.”

Bowman, however, was the only taker.

“Everybody else is scared,” Bowman said.

KURT BUSCH’S CONTRACT STATUS FOR 2019 IS STILL IN LIMBO

Despite rumors that he is headed to Chip Gannasi racing next year—and though team owner Chip Ganassi has confirmed that Jamie McMurray won’t return to the No. 1 Chevrolet in 2019—Kurt Busch says he remains unsigned beyond this season.

Busch is driving the No. 41 Ford as one of four Stewart-Haas Racing entries in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, which start with Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The contract limbo has become familiar territory for Busch in recent years. Last season, Stewart-Haas declined to pick up Busch’s option before re-signing him later to a one-year deal. This season, Busch has acknowledged fielding offers from more than one team but has yet to announce his plans for next year.

“It’s all the same stuff that I’ve been through before, and I don’t look at it like a (distraction),” Busch said. “The contracts that I signed when I was a rookie or a younger guy, they were five-year deals. And now, as of late, I haven’t signed anything that was more than two years.”

Busch, however, doesn’t think the uncertainty of his future will affect his prospects for a second Cup title.

“It doesn’t matter in this day and age what’s going on behind the scenes,” he said. “It’s just a matter of executing when you’re at track, and there are so many things that are out of your control in a race on the track that it doesn’t matter what’s going on outside the car.

“So each week, when I fire up the car for the first Friday practice session, that’s the best feeling, ‘cause I know that I’m going into a zone that I can control the most, and that keeps me away from having to thing about other stuff during the week.”