A season of frustrations boiled over this weekend for Kyle Larson, who described his car’s performance at Talladega Superspeedway as “pretty disappointing, embarrassing at times.”
Larson enters this weekend’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway in danger of seeing his title hopes end after his 11th-place finish Sunday. He trails Martin Truex Jr. by 26 points for the final transfer spot. The most points a driver can score in a race is 60.
Larson was disappointed Sunday with Chip Ganassi Racing’s restrictor-plate program.
“It would be nice to invest some money into our superspeedway cars, money and time,” Larson, who qualified 34th and did not lead a lap in the race, told NBC Sports. “We focus so much on mile-and-a-half stuff, which is obviously important, but these plate races mean a lot. There’s a lot of points to be made at Daytona and Talladega.
“I feel like we haven’t really tried to improve as an organization really since I’ve been at CGR. We have one more race with this package, Daytona 500. Maybe we could put some emphasis on that and try to go have a good 500 in February.”
Larson’s comments are among the critical statements he’s made this season — one where he has six runner-up finishes but no wins — and show his challenges as a team leader and when to be critical and when not to be.
“That’s probably been the hardest thing for me to adjust to coming from sprint cars,” Larson said last month of being a team leader. “Sprint cars, you’ve got to get along with three guys. It’s easy to hang out with three people, but then when you’ve got 150, 200 people that you’ve got to please and make sure you take the time to talk to, and I don’t do a good job of that at all. I don’t. I try to be better, and that’s been something at the shop that everyone wants me to get better at, and it’s hard.
“I’ve been used to working with three people. It’s been something I’ve tried to get better at, and I remember Texas last year when I crashed out, I gave a terrible interview and was a major dick. I embarrassed myself. I embarrassed the race shop. I’ve learned from that, and I’ve grown from it. I still probably don’t do a great job at it all the time, but yeah, I try to not be like that anymore, and I think I’ve done an OK job with it this year, but you can always be better.”
Larson admits he’s watched how Kevin Harvick has led that Stewart-Haas Racing team and when Harvick has been critical of the team.
“He’s very involved in his race team,” Larson said of Harvick. “I think that shows on the weekends. He’s involved in hanging out with his guys but being tough on them also. I think it’s important.
“There’s so many sensitive people in our sport, but I think it’s important to be tough on them if they make a mistake and all that, so I think Kevin is a very good leader, and I think he’s gotten a lot better at that with his age, growing up, and having family and having success and championships and all that.”
Larson is trying to find that role with his team while going through the ups and downs of the season.
His frustration last weekend can be traced to the lack of success on restrictor-plate tracks. Larson has not finished in the top 10 in any of those races the past two years. He took the white flag as the leader in the 2017 Daytona 500 but ran out of fuel and finished 12th. This season, he has not led a lap in such races and finished no better than 11th.
But it’s not just at Daytona and Talladega where there have been struggles.
A runner-up finish at Bristol in August could not completely lift Larson’s spirits.
“Just a really frustrating day,” Larson told NBC Sports. “Our (car) was not very good from Lap 1 to Lap 500 there, but we fought and got a second-place finish out of it. Happy about running second but just disappointed because I had a lot of confidence going into this race and thought our car was really good, but we were probably a 12th- to 15th-place car. Just lined up on the right restarts about every time and was able to gain some spots on every restart and maintain and then be terrible there at the end of the run. Frustrating.”
Problems persisted as the playoffs neared.
Brad Keselowski took the lead from Larson late in the Southern 500 and went on to win that race. Larson, who led a race-high 284 laps, placed third. The following week at Indianapolis, Larson and the team had problems on pit road.
“Pit road has been a mess the last, I don’t know, all year basically,” Larson told NBC Sports. “We’ll have a good couple of spots and one where we explode. I didn’t do a good job on pit road either. I almost slid through my stall one time. Stalled it leaving the box one other time. So I didn’t do good. We’ve just got to clean it up. If we want to win a championship, we have to clean up everything but especially pit road.”
In the opening race of the playoffs at Las Vegas, Larson had flat right front tire 10 laps from the end of Stage 1 and pitted from third place, costing him stage points. He fell a lap behind and that hindered his climb through the standings in the second stage. Larson estimated he lost 12 points because of the problem — nearly half his deficit from the transfer spot in the second round.
His problems continued at the Roval when he was collected in a crash in Turn 1 late in that event. After his struggles at Talladega, Larson will need a lot to happen at Kansas for him to continue his championship quest.