Analysis: Kyle Larson is in need of one more evolution

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Kyle Larson has been, by a number of statistical measures, great in 2021. But can he be greater?

For as much criticism as NASCAR’s playoff format has received, the idea of a 10-race stretch to crown a champion has unearthed the need for teams to rise to the occasion in their quests for a title. This season, Denny Hamlin’s long-game plan — undeniable speed on playoff tracks — has come to the surface, as did William Byron’s efficient passing and the near-perfect restarting of Martin Truex Jr.

It’s hard to argue that the playoff format doesn’t pull brilliance out of NASCAR’s best, and for someone as good as Larson was over the course of the regular season, it’s a push past a point where it seems the driver and his team have nothing left to prove.

But as the playoff opener in Darlington demonstrated, that extra push is a necessity. Larson reverted to a “video game-style” last-ditch effort to pass Hamlin on the final lap. The bid fell short and Larson lost a race to a previously winless challenger just as productive, with as good of a strategist at his side, who, as it turns out, didn’t fret over poor summer output, instead choosing to optimize for playoff tracks.

The onus now falls on Larson to counter the ascendence of Hamlin and the rest of Joe Gibbs Racing, specifically on the 750-horsepower tracks. Since Darlington, he’s earned victories at Bristol and Charlotte’s Roval, both tracks utilizing this engine package. But he’s aware that the status quo he established during the regular season will no longer hack it; he may indeed be the odds-on title favorite but the next four weeks, and final two specifically, will be far from a cakewalk.

“When you really need to get better, you can work harder to figure out ways to do it,” Larson said. “I don’t know the specifics, but I know there was a point in the middle of the year when I think we got some things taken away from us (by NASCAR). So, we kind of fell off for a few weeks and (the No. 5 team) just had to work really hard and figure out whatever that was to get better.

“I feel like we’re back to a similar spot to where we were then.”

Larson’s assessment appears true. His rolling speed ranking is on par with its midsummer pinnacle, but there’s a vital difference. Hamlin’s speed, for the first time this season, is on equally competitive footing at the same moment:

Previously two ships passing in the night, Larson and Hamlin are similarly equipped for the home stretch of the 2021 season, which culminates on tracks where Hamlin had the fastest car in the spring.

Larson, meanwhile, ranked fourth in median lap time at Martinsville — “By far my worst track,” he assured — and fifth at Phoenix. The latter, the host of the championship race, saw a dizzying display from the 29-year-old driver. His adjusted pass efficiency was a sky-high showing, with 59.66% of his pass encounters falling in his favor, but the day was a mess by his own admission.

“I sped twice on pit road that day,” Larson said. “And then the last set of tires we put on was not good. The balance was way different and I was just kind of fighting it there. I thought we had a great car there, just bad execution on my part.”

There’s room for growth at these two pivotal tracks, inviting an idea bandied by fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott. The reigning Cup Series champion believes “You always want to grab that extra gear if you have it to pull” come playoff time.

Whether Larson, a seven-time winner to this point in 2021, has one more metaphorical gear is unclear. We’ve seen a lot of good from him already and better performance, particularly in a year with a restriction on parts development and research and development efforts, might not be possible.

Crew chief Cliff Daniels indicated in the spring that they weren’t prioritizing playoff tracks over others, contrary to what Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske had admitted. The idea behind a holistic approach to the season was to build a base to play off of for the long haul. Daniels wants his success with Larson to sustain.

“Everywhere we go with Kyle right now … is a new race for us,” Daniels said back in May. “I’ve never been to any of these places with Kyle before, so every week is a new week and the foundation of the notebook that we’re trying to build. (I’m) thankful that the year has gone the way it has, but we still have a lot of building to do.”

While the deliberate steps taken by Daniels and Hendrick bode well for Larson’s future — he signed a contract extension with the organization in July, and is locked down through 2023 — it might end up costing them this season’s championship if there wasn’t enough R&D allotment earmarked for the final two weeks, enough to suss out how to out-gun a pair of JGR drivers and competition from inside their own shop.

Perhaps Larson’s overall dominance in NASCAR is ahead of schedule, based on Hendrick’s internal expectations. Regardless, he’s in the thick of a title race that’s more crowded than what the regular season would’ve led most to believe. Hamlin is very nearly his equal. Truex’s strength is stealth but real, a spring winner at both Martinsville and Phoenix. Elliott has a chance to, again, emerge in the playoffs’ waning weeks with a top-end speed that’s been present but not always sustainable.

Larson, though, is bullish on his team becoming greater than its current stature, right in time for the upcoming string of races that matters most.

“I think we can continue to keep evolving in these next couple (weeks),” he said. “I’ve been happy with our team but there’s always room for improvement.”