CHARLOTTE — If push comes to potentially shoving Sunday at Dover International Speedway, Kyle Larson says he again won’t play rough to win the first-round Chase for the Sprint Cup finale.
Even though a victory would guarantee advancement in the playoffs, the big picture still looks good for Larson if he is running second with a faster car in the closing laps as he was to Matt Kenseth at Dover in May.
“If I win, I go to the next round, but if I run second, I probably still go to the next round,” Larson told NBC Sports in a Tuesday interview. “It’s a bad time of the year to piss people off. Matt can tell you about that last year.
“Yeah, I’d always try to race with respect. So there’s a lot on the line, but also if I’m running up front, I’m probably going to transfer anyway.”
Provided the race winner isn’t Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, Tony Stewart or Chris Buescher, Larson will be guaranteed of reaching the Round of 12 with a second, third or fourth-place finish on the 1-mile oval.
Ranked 12th with a five-point edge on McMurray and Dillon through the first two races of the Round of 16, Larson believes that he likely will be safe if he can finish in the top 10. In five starts at Dover, he has four top 10s and an average finish of 6.2, his best in Sprint Cup.
He nearly scored his breakthrough victory on the concrete on May 15 but declined to put a bump-and-run maneuver on Kenseth. More than four months later, and with the vindication of an Aug. 29 victory at Michigan International Speedway, he has no second thoughts.
“I was proud of myself for the way I raced him,” Larson said. “There’s times in the year where it’s like, ‘Oh, if I’d just got into him a little bit, I’d be in the Chase right now.’ But then we won Michigan, and it was over. Didn’t matter.
“I felt like not only did I gain Kenseth’s respect, I probably gained a lot of other competitors’ respect that day by racing Matt cleanly. I was fine with how I raced.”
He certainly was encouraged by his No. 42 Chevrolet’s speed, which improved significantly during May. Larson ran in the top five a week earlier at Kansas Speedway, finished second at Dover and then led 18 laps in the All-Star Race before crashing.
“From then on, I was like, ‘OK, that was three races where we are capable of getting top-three finishes and wins,’” he said. “From then on, I was like our team is good. Each and every week we’ve gotten a little bit better, so that’s been a lot of fun.”
Larson credits the improvement to crew chief Chad Johnston, who initially was reluctant to overhaul the cars after joining Ganassi in the offseason from Stewart-Haas Racing (Johnston won with Martin Truex Jr. at Michael Waltrip Racing prior to that).
The approach changed after only two top 10s in the first 10 races.
“I think early in the year, Chad was new to the team, so it’s hard for someone new to come in and immediately make all the changes they want,” Larson said. “Well, we sucked early in the year. Chad took it on himself to say, ‘All right, now it’s my calls.’ I think he’s taken what he’s learned from the teams he’s been on in previous years and what they’ve done, and it’s kind of helped us.
“You could see that in his personality. I think early in the season he was still quiet and trying to feel everyone out. Now he’s not quiet at all.”