Before the NASCAR season started, 7-time champion Jimmie Johnson said he expected Kyle Larson to be a weekly contender.
Before the NASCAR season started, who did seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson expect to be a week-in-week-out contender for wins and a Cup title?
“Kyle Larson,” Johnson told azcentral sports during a Valley visit just before the Daytona 500. “Now that he’s got a taste of winning, I think he’ll be tough.”
Larson, who got his first Cup victory last season at Michigan International Speedway, didn’t win Sunday’s Camping World 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. He finished just .312 second behind Ryan Newman. But he left the Avondale oval as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series leader, six points ahead of Brad Keselowski.
Sure, it’s only four events into the marathon 36-race season. Larson, though, has been consistently at or near the lead in the No. 42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet, fielded by Chip Ganassi, the multi-time Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series winning team owner.
Larson, who has permission from Ganassi to still run occasional dirt-track sprint car races, ran out of fuel on the last lap while leading the Daytona 500 and wound-up 12th. PIR was his third consecutive runner-up result, and going back to 2016, his fourth in five starts.
“It means a lot to me to hear a guy like Jimmie say he was going to keep his eye on us,” Larson said. “We’ve just got to keep it going. We’ve never started a year off as good as we have. It makes you work just that much harder to stay this good.
“I’m super-proud of everybody at our race shop, to build fast race cars and make sure we don’t have any parts failures. They are the reason why we are running as well as we are. If we can just keep doing that, be mistake-free on pit road and on the racetrack, the wins are going to come.”
Larson, 24, is Asian-American and the first graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program to win rookie of the year in the Xfinity Series (2013) and Cup (2014). He did admit he wished for a re-do on the last restart.
“I should have went a lane up in Turns 1 and 2. I should have known to stay close(r) to Newman.”
NASCAR’s 20-somethings showed their strength again at PIR, surely to the delight of motorsports industry executives striving to attract younger fans. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (29) finished fourth, reigning Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez (25) was seventh, and Erik Jones (20) eighth. Chase Elliott (21) led 106 of the 314 laps, but struggled on restarts and placed 12th.
“The future has never been brighter with all this young talent,” said winning team owner Richard Childress, involved in NASCAR since the 1970s.
Stenhouse gained track position by not pitting on the last caution when pole winner Joey Logano had a flat tire and hit the wall. Crew chief Brian Pattie wanted Stenhouse to stay out while the driver wanted new tires. When Pattie saw how many other cars were pitting, he changed his mind, but it was too late.
“I think his gut instinct, to stay out, was right,” said Stenhouse, a double Xfinity Series champion and winner in sprint and midget-car dirt-track events, but perhaps best known as Danica Patrick’s boyfriend. “I was hoping I could get to the 31 (Newman), but I didn’t fire-off (restart) as well I wanted. I was really loose.”
Kyle Busch, 31, won the Cup championship two years ago and isn’t part of stock car racing’s Millennial Movement. In the headlines all week after a post-race brawl on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway pit road with Logano’s crew that left him with a bleeding forehead, Busch led laps 196-308 until Logano’s accident, and finished an extremely frustrated and tight-lipped third.
“The car was fantastic on the long runs, especially when we got out in front,” Busch said. “We were in the right position and had a great shot at winning. I knew there was going to be a tire blown (on someone’s car) because we (field) hadn’t made it past 44 laps in any (green-flag) run without one being blown.
“It seems every finish that’s destined for us, we get a worse finish.”
Amazingly, for Larson, second place might seem like a worse finish.