Questioned two years ago for a lack of aggression in a late-race duel, Kyle Larson showed how far he’ll go for a Cup victory Sunday.
The rest of the garage likely took notice that Larson can no longer be viewed as just a highly talented, hard-charging, high-line racer. The book on Larson will include a notation that he isn’t afraid to make contact on the last lap to win a race.
Larson did that once. He spun leader C.E. Falk on the final lap to win the “Battle at the Beach” short-track race in 2013 at Daytona. The negative reverberations from fans and competitors afterward stung Larson.
Through the years, Larson has said he didn’t want to be known as a dirty driver and didn’t want to be involved in the drama that goes with such incidents. He wanted to race clean and hard.
Busch wasn’t close enough for a slide job — diving down into the corner and letting the car climb the banking and drift in front.
Larson had to be more aggressive.
“I wanted to slide in front of him,” Larson said. “But I knew I would be too tight and have to slow down too much to where he would just probably cross over and drive away from me.
“I did plan to go into there and get into the side of him and slow him down, which I did, but I really didn’t want to clear him before (Turn) 3 because I knew that would give him the opportunity to do that into 3.”
Busch expected a slide job, something that has become more prevalent in NASCAR as the difficulty in passing increases and the top groove becomes the preferred line. Such a maneuver, in its most exaggerated sense often is described as a video game move, a phrase coined after Carl Edwards’ bold attempt to beat Jimmie Johnson sent Edwards speeding by and then up into the wall as Johnson drove by to win at Kansas in 2008
Noah Gragson, running second to Brett Moffitt in a Truck race at Iowa last month, tried the same move. Just like Edwards, Gragson was so fast that after he cut to the bottom of the corner he took the lead but shot up the track and hit the wall, allowing Moffitt back by for the win.
That Busch expected only a slide job from Larson and not contact likely would have been a viewpoint shared by about all the competitors before Sunday’s race.
Larson is respected in the Cup garage for how cleanly he races. After his first Cup win in 2014 at Michigan, Busch was in Victory Lane before Larson exited his car to congratulate him. Others who visited Larson in Victory Lane that day included close friend Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson.
“It just shows that I have the respect and I raced them well, they enjoy racing with me,” Larson explained on NASCAR America a day after his win.
That respect remained a key point in 2016 when Larson dueled Matt Kenseth for the win at Dover. Larson raced Kenseth clean. Kenseth won.
Asked about how rough he would have been with Kenseth had he gotten closer, Larson said that day: “I didn’t want to do anything dirty. I respect Matt Kenseth a lot. He’s definitely in my eyes the cleanest racer out there. He always races me with respect.”
Asked if he might have been rougher with another competitor in that situation, Larson said then: “I try to race everybody with respect. Feel like I do a good job of that.”
To suggest that Larson has changed with his actions against Busch would not be accurate. This is a moment. Larson will determine if it becomes the norm in future instances.
Understand, there is a history with Larson and Busch and that could have made Larson feel it was OK to be more aggressive in this instance.
Twice Busch has been physical with Larson to win. It happened in what is now the Xfinity Series in March 2013 at Bristol. As Busch and Larson dueled for the win, they came upon lapped traffic in Turn 3 of the last lap. Busch went low and Larson went high. In Turn 4, Busch shot up the track to block Larson. Busch’s right rear forced Larson into the wall. Busch bounced off Larson, Busch’s car crossed the finish line askew while Larson scrapped the wall.
In April at Bristol, Busch did a bump-and-run with six laps to go to take the lead. Larson didn’t get close enough to retaliate. Busch won.
Sunday, Busch got close enough to Larson in Turn 3 to bump him and send him into a slide. Busch’s car rebounded off the wall and went on to win.
Larson wasn’t upset. He called it an “awesome finish” and understood that hitting Busch meant that it was fair for Busch to do the same. That the cars started the lap first and second and finished that way despite the contact made this beating and banging OK. Had one not finished, feelings might have been different.
But one thing is clear, Larson showed what he’ll do for a win.
This time, no one questioned his tactics.