Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LONG POND, PA – Even factoring in his laidback Californian-cool personality, listening to Kyle Larson this week, it’s obvious that he is both optimistic and confident about his chances to qualify for the 2019 edition of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
That’s not to say, however, Larson doesn’t have a plan.
The popular driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet is ranked 13th in the driver standings as the series heads into Sunday’s Gander RV 400 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Larson holds a 14-point advantage on Clint Bowyer, who is currently in the 16th and final Playoff transfer position. And he has a 31-point advantage on Jimmie Johnson and Daniel Suarez, who are 17th and 18th respectively, tied in points with six races remaining to set the field.
“I feel okay about it (position) but thankful the rest of the bubble guys had issues this last race (at New Hampshire) because I DNFed and only lost nine points to the cutoff,” Larson said. “I was surprised by that.
“I do feel like our cars are definitely fast enough and capable and should be in the Playoffs. As far as speed goes, I feel good about it. But obviously, I’ve got to just not make mistakes to give up a lot of points, like I could have this last weekend.”
Not too surprisingly to his fans and the greater NASCAR nation who has gotten to know the young talent, Larson would prefer not to rely on points advantages and instead earn that first victory of 2019. Just win.
And the series is visiting venues where that could happen – places where Larson has traditionally shined.
This week’s 400-miler at Pocono Raceway is followed by races at Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Darlington and finally the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Larson has a runner-up finish at Pocono in 2018. He won two stages and led 35 laps in the race this June, only to finish a disappointing 26th. And Larson has a pair of top-10 runs in five starts at Watkins Glen – including a best of fourth in 2014.
But the brightest and biggest circle on Larson’s schedule is probably around the Aug. 11 stop at Michigan International Speedway where Larson won his first ever Monster Energy Series race in 2016 and answered by sweeping the 2017 season. He hasn’t a had a top 10 since his last victory in 2017 at the track, but was encouraged by his 14th-place finish back in June. It remains a valid opportunity to secure that “safety net” victory.
“Michigan, we’ve obviously had a lot of success, but the racing was way different then, so it’s hard to say that I go there with the same amount of confidence I had back in 2017,” Larson said. “But we raced there a few weeks ago and we were really fast, our pit strategy just didn’t work out there at the end. I ran inside the top-three, top-five most of the race. We could be good there.
“Bristol and Darlington, those are a couple of my best tracks. I’m excited about the upcoming month and a half of racing because those are tracks I’ve historically run pretty well at.”
Bristol Motor Speedway’s high-banked half-mile has been a particularly good venue for Larson. He’s won the pole position twice and finished runner-up in both races last year, including the August visit. Twice, Larson has led at least 200 laps in a race at Bristol.
The historic Darlington (S.C.) Raceway has been another positive entry in Larson’s young career. He has four top 10s in five starts, including a pair of career best third-place finishes. He led a dominating 284 of 367 laps in his third place effort last year.
“Consistency is probably what we need to do the most to gain points, but then you know, if a win is there for the taking, we’re definitely going to try to win,” Larson said. “But we also can’t do anything too crazy in terms of fuel strategy or things like that, that could cost us if it doesn’t work out. Obviously, we’d like to not be close to the Playoff bubble because then we could call our races a little differently, but that’s just the box we’re in.”
And so Larson insists his method involves taking care of himself and not paying too much attention to the immediate Playoff competition. He’s optimistic. And that’s half the battle.
“It is kind of crazy seeing Jimmie Johnson floating around that cutoff, I don’t really pay attention to that necessarily – everyone’s history and successes that they’ve had,” Larson said.
“I just want to make the Playoffs, so we’ll keep trying to finish these races. We were doing a good job and gaining a lot of points and this past weekend kind of set us back a little bit. But we’ve got fast cars and that helps make it a little easier to be consistent and do what we’ve got to do to make the Playoffs.’’