Doubts erased, Kyle Larson seeks Cup title in season of momentous wins

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For all his talent, doubt seeped into Kyle Larson’s mind.

The hype for the dirt racing wunderkind churned when he came to NASCAR. In his fourth career Xfinity start, Larson dueled Kyle Busch for the win at Bristol before finishing second. It was the first of four runner-up finishes in 2013 for Larson.

Such flashes showed what could be. He moved to Cup full-time in 2014 for Chip Ganassi Racing, but it wasn’t until 2016 that Larson won his first series race. It came in his 99th career start.

“I feel like for a long time I could have been viewed as the most overly hyped driver in the Cup Series … because I think everybody saw the potential,” he said.

As the wins didn’t come, the questions continued for Larson.

“You just don’t know if you’re lacking on equipment and stuff like that, or if it’s just you,” he said. “So, yes, I think back then, it’s like, ‘Man, maybe I’m not as good in a stock car as some people think that I might be or as good as I want to be.’”

After the season Larson has had and the chance to win his first Cup championship Sunday at Phoenix Raceway (3 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock), it seems hard to believe that he could have had such doubts.

“Light bulb”

Losing the 2019 Chili Bowl Nationals on the last lap devastated Larson. This was the event he wanted the most at that point in his career. He led the 2018 race only to have engine issues with less than 15 laps left. To lose the prestigious midget car race so close to reaching his goal hurt.

“I remember the … Monday after the last Chili Bowl he lost three years ago,” said Josh Wise, a former racer who works with Larson and other drivers to optimize their performance.

“I remember seeing a light bulb go off that day as we talked through that experience.”

The details remain private, but Wise said they discussed mindset and the power of thought. It proved to be one of the keys for Larson to reach his high goals.

A year later, Larson won the Chili Bowl Nationals. He called it, at the time, “the biggest … race I’ve ever won.” It was a breakthrough in many ways.

“I think (it) helped put me in a better mentally strong place as a race car driver and not talking myself into losing races anymore in the future,” he said of that win.

How does a driver who had so much success on dirt even let such thoughts enter their mind?

“I think you just think bad thoughts because I had so many things go wrong there (at the Chili Bowl),” Larson said. “You just talk yourself into it and something goes wrong. I don’t know how to explain it. If you can think positive thoughts, usually positive things happen.”

His NASCAR career paused in April 2020 after he uttered a racial slur during an online race, costing him his job and the chance to race stock cars the rest of the year. He returned to sprint car racing and continued winning.

Larson started this year by repeating as the Chili Bowl Nationals winner before running his first NASCAR race for Hendrick Motorsports.

His Chili Bowl victory in January began what is arguably the greatest season in U.S. motorsports in his generation. He’s won nine Cup races, the All-Star Race and the King’s Royal and Knoxville Nationals in sprint cars. His Coca-Cola 600 win made Hendrick Motorsports the winningest team in Cup history.

Larson’s season of big race wins gained the attention of Mario Andretti, the only driver to win an Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and Formula One championship in a career.

“He’s not the only one that interests me,” Andretti told NBC Sports about Larson, “but he just captured me in a very special way because I see a lot of myself there.”

Clear vision 

It’s easy to see the success and acknowledge that Larson has reached an elite level with his Hendrick team, but what is it about Larson that truly makes him so good?

Brad Sweet is Larson’s brother-in-law and a racer. Sweet will clinch his third consecutive World of Outlaws championship Thursday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, so he knows about winning. Sweet sees things about Larson that most sitting in the stands don’t.

“I guarantee you,” Sweet told NBC Sports, “if you asked every driver who the best driver that they’ve raced against in this generation, that 99% of the people that have raced against Kyle would say Kyle Larson because you just see things that he does on the racetrack, whether it be in a dirt car, whether it be in a go-kart playing in the backyard, whether it be in a stock car. You just see a natural talent that is just able to elevate anything he drives to another level.”

Sweet notes the one ability Larson has that few can match is “his eyes and his hand-eye coordination, how he sees things.”

Sweet said the way Larson processes what is happening as he’s in the car separates him from other drivers. It’s as if things are going much slower, allowing Larson the time to react that others don’t grasp. That ability can lead to subtle moves before others can counter or drastic moves that others don’t see until it’s too late.

“When he talks about a race, he’ll tell you something about how he saw you move your line, or he saw a piece of mud that moved a little, or he saw the scoreboard on the backstretch and knew there were this many laps to go. … He doesn’t realize, for other drivers, it’s not happening that slow for them,” Sweet said.

“The stock car world is going to see. He’s going to be a force, a factor for a very long time, as long as he wants to be. We’ve known about how talented he is in the dirt world for a very long time because none of us had never seen anything like him.”

Cliff Daniels, Larson’s crew chief, marvels at what Larson can do in the car.

“Our job and my job is to make sure that he sees all the notes and all the perspective of a race just for how to manage a race. If you get behind, how do you get ahead. What different strategies can play out, things like that,” Daniels said.

Not only is he an amazing talent, he’s also very, very smart behind the wheel of understanding what is going on with other racers around him. If somebody is off sequence. If we’re off sequence. What does that look like. He does such a good job.”

Higher goals

Combine Larson’s skill with Hendrick’s resources and Daniels’ leadership, and it has led to a dominating season.

Larson leads the series in victories (nine), stage wins (17), top fives (19), top 10s (25) and laps led (2,474). He’s been as strong in the playoffs, winning four of nine races. The last driver to win four races in the playoffs was Martin Truex Jr. in 2017. He won the title that year.

Sweet marvels at what Larson has done.

“You’d have to put Kyle Busch in a category of Kyle Larson,” Sweet said, comparing Larson with the two-time Cup champion. “Obviously, there’s talents like Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen that are out of this world. I’m not going to go as far and say that Kyle (Larson) is the best racer in the world, but he’s certainly in the debate as one of the greatest talents that we’ve ever seen in our generation and one of the best overall drivers in the world.

“I’d love to see how he stacked up in an IndyCar. I’d love to see how he would stack up in a Formula One car. He’s the type of person that can actually draw all of motorsports together because he’s the only guy, I think, that is naturally talented enough that he could get in all these different cars, a late model, a sprint car, an IndyCar, a stock car and actually be up to speed very quick.

“You just plug him in the car, you give him two or three laps, a couple of runs and he’s going to be as fast or faster than his teammate or whoever is in something similar. It’s just who he is and how he is able to adapt. It’s very unbelievable. I wish I knew exactly what it was how he sees things. He can’t explain it. I’ve asked him a thousand times.”

All that is left for Larson this year is to be a Cup champion and complete his year of winning big races in stock cars and sprint cars.

“Not that I don’t want to be just referenced as the greatest NASCAR driver of all time or the greatest sprint car driver of all time,” Larson told NBC Sports before the playoffs began, “I want to be known as somebody who could climb into all different types of cars and be great at what they do.”

He’s leaving little doubt this season.