It’s not unrealistic to imagine that Kyle Larson could be going for his fourth Cup victory of the season this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Instead, late-race issues cost the Hendrick Motorsports driver a chance at two victories and helped forge a theme of variety with different winners in each of the season’s first six Cup races.
Larson will again be among the favorites this weekend when the series races on dirt for the first time since 1970. A win would continue his remarkable start after missing most of last year after uttering a racial slur during an iRacing event.
“I had hoped that we could start the year off this strong, or close to being this strong,” Larson told reporters Wednesday.
He’s led a series-high 379 laps this season, run more laps in the top 15 (92.9%) than any other driver this year and ranks third in average finish (9.0), behind only Denny Hamlin (5.0) and Kevin Harvick (8.5).
Larson won in his fourth start for Hendrick, leading 103 laps at Las Vegas earlier this month.
He could have won in his second start for the team.
Larson spun just after taking second place late in the race at the Daytona road course last month. He was on the same tire strategy as eventual winner Christopher Bell, who used fresher tires to chase leader Joey Logano and pass him late for the win.
Larson nearly won last week.
He dominated Atlanta, leading 269 laps but lost the lead to Ryan Blaney with nine laps left and finished second.
“We had a dominating car and did a great job as a team really all race long,” Larson said of the Atlanta race. “I think it just kind of falls in my lap of just playing out that last stage wrong. I think Blaney got a lot better; the track picked up a lot of pace with it cooling down and we had longer runs. That was probably as hard as I ran all race just because I was trying to get out to that big-ish lead that I had before.
“I wasn’t getting that big lead, so I was still trying really hard to get out there and get away. I wish I would have just realized that I wasn’t getting away as quickly as I thought I could and kind of aborted that plan and went into tire save mode. That way, I still think maybe he would have caught me by the end of the race, but I would have had more tire to maybe hold him off and more tire to get by Joey (Logano). And just run my own pace there at the end, rather than try to fight off Ryan and work really hard to get by lap cars.”
Although many view he as among the favorites at Bristol — “he’s good at anything he gets in,” Austin Dillon said — Larson is confident but not cocky.
“I think people look at me with all the experience that I have on dirt as being even more of a favorite,” said the two-time Chili Bowl champion. “But these cars are way different than what I typically race on dirt. They don’t drive anything like what I’m used to with a sprint car, midget or now a dirt late model. These cars are way heavier and have a lot less horsepower than I’m used to on a dirt track.
“I still think I’ve got a good shot, but I don’t really know if I have an advantage over anybody, other than just being able to kind of read the track surface; know kind of how that’s changing, where to find grip and things like that.”
As to who could challenge Larson at Bristol, he has a few names.
“I would not be shocked if a pavement guy went there and was fast right off the bat because I don’t think it’s going to be like dirt like we’re used to. It’s hard to also not look at the guys that have a lot of dirt experience as being the favorite. I think Christopher Bell, I think he’s obviously one of the most talented race car drivers I’ve ever watched, especially on dirt. I think, for sure, he’ll be one of the guys to beat.
“Austin Dillon is another one that I look at. If anybody has got more experience racing on this type of stuff, it’s him. I’ve got probably still under 10 dirt late model events under my belt, where he grew up racing modifieds and late models and stuff, so he is used to the heavier types of cars. He just raced a crate late model there, so he’s used less horsepower and stuff in a full-bodied car.
“I think Austin, if anybody, probably has the most advantage, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if a guy like Kyle Busch, who is so talented and can adapt to anything, can go there and win. I wouldn’t be shocked either if the finishing results weren’t much different than a normal Bristol race.”
Larson ran a Super Late Model last week at the Bristol Dirt Nationals to gain experience on that track.
“I would assume that (the track is) going to be really slick,” he said of this weekend’s conditions. “It’ll probably slow down a lot. I don’t think it’s going to drive like an aggressive-style dirt car that I’m used to. So yeah, I think that if anything, (it) evens the playing field a lot for guys that don’t have dirt experience. We’ll see how it goes.
“I don’t know what to expect. I think I have a little bit more of an idea now after racing there last week. But still, there’s a lot of unknown because the cars are different; the tires are different than what I ran last week. So, we’ll see.”