Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DARLINGTON, SC – Kyle Larson shows up to NASCAR’s venerable Darlington (S.C.) Raceway feeling optimistic. Four top-10 finishes in five previous starts in the Bojangles Southern 500 (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and a current streak of four top-10 finishes understandably gives him a positive mindset.
As much as the 27-year-old star would like to earn one of the most respected victories in the sport at the historic venue – frankly, Larson would just like to earn a victory.
It’s been 71 races since Larson last hoisted a trophy at the 2017 Richmond regular season finale. And week after week, there is a distinctive and understandably feeling of winning inevitability.
That’s especially true at Darlington, a 1.366-mile oval that has notoriously given NASCAR veterans and newbies fits. But a place Larson has seemed to naturally take to.
“This is one of my favorite tracks, probably in the top three of my favorites,’’ Larson said smiling Friday morning in the Darlington Raceway Media Center. “I enjoy coming here. This track more than the rest of them, when you drive into this place you feel like you are at a race track.
“I know it is a throwback weekend, but even before all that, I always got that vibe that this felt like a race track. It has fairly small stands for how big this place is. The painted walls, the campgrounds and everything just feels like a grassroots kind of track.
“The surface is really worn out, the style of racing here is intense so it suits me and I really enjoy it.’’
A lot could be said for the right frame of mind at a track known for frustration and aggression. Maintaining the right balance between those emotions and a huge dose of optimism is often the difference in having a track record like Larson’s at Darlington or leaving town downtrodden.
Last year Larson led 284 of the race’s 367 laps in his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet only to finish third. The winner, Brad Keselowski, led 24.
“We had the best car all race long last year,’’ Larson said. “Brad Keselowski’s team just did a little better job than us on pit road that final stop and beat me off pit road by a foot or whatever it was.
“With not a lot of laps left, which I was really good on the long runs, we didn’t have enough laps for me to get anything going. I don’t think there is anything I could have done differently at that point.’’
The near-misses here have been a constant for Larson, who in 2017, for example, led 124 laps – the same number of laps as Denny Hamlin, who celebrated in Victory Lane. Larson finished 14th – the only non-top-10 finish in his five career Darlington starts.
In 2016, he led 45 laps and finished third. He had a 10th place and an eighth place finish previously.
Larson comes to Darlington this week with a lot of momentum and a lot of motivation. He’s ranked 11th in the Cup championship standings and secure in his 2019 Playoff bid. But even that is not enough. Larson wants to and expects to win.
He’s on a string of four top-eight finishes. He’s had top-10s in seven of the last nine races including a runner-up finish at Chicago on June 30 and a third place finish at Michigan two races ago.
Larson led the most laps (142 of 325) at Atlanta early in the season, won the pole position at the Sonoma, Calif. road course and led 62 laps at the Cup Series most recent race in Bristol, Tenn.
“I just think that with these tracks that are worn out with an old surface, our team has a good setup for those places,’’ Larson said. “You look at Atlanta. I led the most laps there. Chicago, we almost won. We led a ton of laps here last year. I was good at Homestead.
“It’s just something about these intermediate tracks that suit us. It’s just unique; you run close to the wall and I’m obviously comfortable with that. So, I just get excited about this place and look forward