Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – It’s not as if Kyle Larson needs any extra motivation.
One of NASCAR’s most popular recent breakout stars, Larson has enjoyed a good six-year run in the big leagues. Approaching the fifth Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the 2019 season, he’d like to regain form and regain his footing as a perennial can’t-miss player in the championship.
What better place to restore winning ways than his home state’s Auto Club Speedway – about a seven-hour drive south from the small Elk Grove community where he grew up and began his career. Two years ago he won the Auto Club 400 (Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) from the pole position – one of the most popular victories in the track’s history.
He’d love to repeat that this weekend to get back in the win column for the first time in two seasons and regain that title form. He figures there’s no better place. He has two runner-up finishes (2014 and 2018) and a victory (2017) in five starts at California.
“We won here a couple years ago and ran second here last year, got my first Xfinity win here and I have a [Cup] pole,” Larson said. “It’s been a good track for me, it’s Southern California and I’m from Northern California – about six hours away. I still have a lot of Central and Southern California sprint car fans that are here walking the garage and taking pictures and I sign a lot of autographs of sprint cars I ran in the past.
“It’s cool to have support anywhere you go, but your home state is nice. I guess it gives me a little bit of extra motivation maybe to go out there and win for all the California people out there.”
After earning Rookie of the Year honors in 2014 with 17 top-10 runs in 36 races. He claimed his first Monster Energy Series trophy two years later (at Michigan) and put an exclamation point on the showing with a four-win 2017 season, when he swept both Michigan races and had a win from the pole position at this week’s Auto Club Speedway venue.
He was championship bound – a title favorite – in 2017 only to have four consecutive DNFs in the 10-race playoff portion of the schedule from Kansas to Phoenix.
Last year was a challenge for Larson’s No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet team. He had a healthy total of top-fives (12) and top-10s (19) but winless for the first time in three years and ended up ninth in the Playoff run.
This season Larson has stealthily been a big time player. He’s been ranked seventh or better all year in the championship with top-10s in the Daytona 500 (seventh) and last week at Phoenix (sixth). In fact, for the first time in team history Larson and his new teammate Kurt Busch (ninth) have both been ranked among the top-10 in the standings all season long.
Larson led a race high 142 laps at Atlanta – and won the first Stage – only to finish 12th after receiving a heart-breaking pit road speeding penalty late in the race.
Only championship leader Kyle Busch (227) and Ryan Blaney (148) have led more laps than Larson’s 142 this season.
He’s been a legitimate contender in every race and wonders what the outcome might be if not for little missteps along the way. The encouraging thing is how far up in the standings he is – even with the extra work of overcoming miscues.
“We haven’t had the greatest last three weeks when it comes to execution,” Larson said. “We just try to learn from it, talk about it and figure out how not to make it again.
“I think I had only one speeding penalty all last year then I sped at Atlanta (three weeks ago).
“This series is so tough you have to be perfect all weekend long,” he continued. “From Friday to Sunday you can’t make any mistakes. You’ve got to make all the right decisions just to maximize your potential of winning. Putting us back and starting 31st last week hurt us. We could have a lot more points right now and be top-three or four in points, but didn’t do a great job. Just have to clean that stuff up. And I’m confident our team can do that.”