DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After a frustrating 2018 NASCAR Cup Series season where Kyle Larson was close to victory so many times only to come up short, the open-wheel racing star hopes to become the closer Sunday’s 61st Daytona 500.
The 26-year-old driver from Elk Grove, Calif., has had the look of stardom for a long time. Many thought it had arrived in 2017 when he scored four Cup wins for Chip Ganassi Racing and finished eighth in the championship.
Last year, Larson finished second a whopping six times and third four more times. That’s 10 finishes of third or higher, but no wins.
Despite the frustration, Larson refused to shake his head over last season’s results as he prepares by Sunday’s Daytona 500.
Larson will start 26th on Sunday.
“We didn’t get the win last year, but it wasn’t that disappointing of a season,” Larson said. “I still ran second six times and probably was the second-best season I’ve had out of the five Cup seasons I’ve run. It’s not one that I want to forget but obviously I’d want to get some wins, so we’re just looking at this season to try to do better than we were last year to put ourselves in position to win more often and hopefully capitalize on those situations.
“I’m ready to go and it’s been a short off season for me. I’m excited to be back in a stock car.”
Larson is one of the heroes of the grassroots racing crowd. He’s a bit of a throwback, such as Tony Stewart, because he isn’t afraid to race anything, anywhere, any time.
That makes him a racer’s racer to people like Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I’m just glad that they feel the same way finally,” Larson said. “It’s nice that they support all the extra racing that I do.
“I get that question a lot, do I do it to grow the sport? I don’t really think about when I’m off at a dirt track or anything like that, I’m not thinking about trying to help motorsports or grow motorsports. I love motorsports, so that’s why I do it. I feel like I make an impact a little bit, and it’s not just me. There are a lot of other guys. I feel like we all do a good job of cross-promoting between sprint cars or dirt track racing and NASCAR.
“I feel like for a minute we lost touch on the grassroots fan and I think the last three years, four years dirt racing has grown some that it’s added excitement to the NASCAR scene and vice versa. I just love to race. If I can do anything to grow racing in general, I’m all for it.”
That respect for the grassroots form of racing and for the grassroots race fan is what makes Larson so popular at such events as the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla., the Knoxville (Iowa) Nationals or the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ventura Raceway in California.
One day, he even wants to reconnect his grassroots racing to a ride with Chip Ganassi Racing in the Indianapolis 500. Ganassi wants to see Larson develop into a stock car racing star before that possibility becomes a reality.
A win in the 61st Daytona 500 could help convince Ganassi to give Larson a shot in the Indy 500.
“It would be huge,” Larson said. “I’ve been in victory lane a couple of times here, but it’s not the same as what a Cup win here or especially a Daytona 500 win would feel like, so we’ll just try to put ourselves in position and see what we can do. I don’t think you ever know what your emotions will be like until it happens, so hopefully this is the year we can do it or hopefully I get a chance in my career to get a Daytona 500 win.
“My first Daytona 500 I remember I got in the wall like lap two. I got on the splitter, I guess, into turn one and hit the wall and then we had rain delays, so it was just a long Daytona 500 for my first one. Then a couple years ago, almost getting the win, leading the white-flag lap and then running out of fuel in (turn) two was heartbreaking, but then kind of cool at the same moment kind of knowing that I had a shot and probably would have won the race had I had enough fuel.
“So, I’m just hoping I have another opportunity in the future to put myself in position to get a win.”
If Larson can do that on Sunday, he will go from close to becoming the closer.