NASCAR Cup playoffs

Kyle Larson: ‘I feel like we’ve made it a round further already’ in playoffs this year

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — This postseason sees Kyle Larson in his second NASCAR Cup Series playoff appearance.

Not that Larson himself sees it that way.

“I don’t really feel like I was in the playoffs last year,” Larson said Wednesday during the playoff media day.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver made a quick exit last year when he was eliminated after the first round.

After qualifying for the playoffs via his first Cup win at Michigan, Larson finished 18th in the opener at Chicagoland after cutting a tire in the final 10 laps. He then placed 10th at New Hampshire before a battery issue early at Dover ended with Larson getting “kicked out the first round.”

But that doesn’t mean the fourth-year driver didn’t learn something from the experience.

“Even if you’re not in it, you still get an idea of what you need to do,” Larson said. “I mean, really you’ve got to make no mistakes. If you do have a mistake, you know you have to win the next race.”

Larson and his No. 42 team have done their fair share of winning this season, capped off by Saturday’s overtime win at Richmond Raceway. Somewhat overshadowed by rogue ambulances and caution controversy, the win was Larson’s fourth of the year.

It was also his first on a track shorter than 2 miles.

“I didn’t really think of it at the time, but it’s cool to finally win somewhere that’s not two miles,” Larson said. “Obviously, I’ve been really fast at a lot of different styles of racetracks. I’ve ran second, I feel like, at every racetrack. I mean, I’ve been close to win. It’s not like I’m only good at two-mile tracks.”

Larson has finished second seven times this year, including at the playoff tracks of Texas Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Phoenix Raceway and Dover International Speedway.

The Texas and New Hampshire results came after Larson had to start at or near the rear of the field. New Hampshire and Dover follow Chicagoland, a 1.5-mile oval, in the first round.

“Yeah, I could have a lot of mile-and-a-half wins,” Larson said. “I could have won the Daytona 500 this year. But it was nice to win at (Richmond), a track where I would put it down there with Martinsville as being my worst tracks. Richmond and Martinsville would be my worst tracks. For me to win at Richmond was a huge confidence booster.”

The confidence fueled by Larson’s four wins, his second seeding in the playoffs and his team’s generally faster cars than last year has Larson feeling “more relaxed” entering the postseason.

“This year I feel like we should hopefully make it through the first round,” Larson said. “I feel like we’ve made it a round further already this year. I don’t want to jinx myself, but I just feel more confident this year. I think I should be with four wins rather than one at this point last year.

“But anything can happen. I mean, we could win these next 10 or we could be off also. I could have one bad race, then not win the next two, be out in the first round.

“We’ve just got to do everything right.”

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NASCAR America: Dale Jarrett, Steve Letarte make their playoff ‘sleeper picks’ (video)

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Sure, lots of people are picking guys like Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch as favorites heading into the 10-race NASCAR Cup playoffs.

But on Tuesday’s NASCAR America, NASCAR On NBC analysts Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte came up with a couple of surprises when it came to choosing “sleeper picks” that could go several rounds, if not all the way to the Championship 4 round.

First, here’s DJ on why he’s picking Kurt Busch: “He won the Daytona 500. He’s seeded 12th. He’s been running extremely well, much better over these last five or six races. I think he’s the driver you pay attention to because they’ve found something that’s going to put them there.”

And here’s Steve on why he’s picking Ryan Blaney as his sleeper: “Ryan Blaney is the driver I feel is going to continue much farther into the playoffs than people expect. I think he’ll easily get out of the Round of 16 and … get into the Round of 8.”