BROOKLYN, Mich. – Kyle Larson likes his chances of winning Saturday’s Knoxville Nationals (“the biggest sprint car race in the world,” he says) but he’d prefer you avoid asking outside of Iowa.
Within the confines of the NASCAR garage, where Larson will be commuting from again this week to race at Knoxville, his dalliance with dirt racing has made some waves in the past.
“Oh no, it makes plenty of waves still,” the Chip Ganassi Racing driver said with a smile after practice Friday at Michigan International Speedway.
In January, Larson caused a stir when he said winning the Chili Bowl was bigger than the Daytona 500.
This week, his father, Mike, told the Des Moines Register the Knoxville Nationals is No. 1 on the bucket list. Over any race.”
So have things smoothed over enough that where there is at least a grudging acceptance in NASCAR of the Larson family’s longtime love of dirt racing?
“So, I feel like I need to avoid this question before I make everybody at NASCAR mad or some of my fans mad,” Larson said. “I’ll just avoid answering that. I’ve been through this before a lot, so I’m learning more and more to just keep my mouth shut.”
He will get a few more questions about Knoxville if he wins Saturday night’s feature race, and he’s off to a great start. He won a warmup race Monday at Oskaloosa and then helped assure himself of starting third in the A main feature with an outstanding performance Wednesday in the preliminaries.
He will start third behind Brad Sweet (brother of his fiancée Katelyn) and Donny Schatz, a 10-time winner of the Knoxville Nationals.
“Brad Sweet and Donny Schatz will be the two guys to beat, but I feel like we are close,” Larson said. “It’s a long race. It would be neat to win that deal.”
Last year, he finished second to Schatz after NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi relented and allowed Larson to skirt the clauses in his contract that precludes running in a sprint car race the night before a Cup event.
This year, Larson (who is permitted 25 sprint car races annually) didn’t even have to ask for permission – plans already had begun a year ago to capitalize on Larson returning to the event.
“I kind of figured at that time that it worked out good enough that I could do it,” he said. “Just very thankful that I have an owner that lets me have fun and then especially on a weekend like this go be able to participate in the biggest sprint car race in the world the night before I’m on track racing the Cup car.
“You don’t see any other owners really doing that. He knows it’s important to me and I appreciate that.”
It helped, of course, that Larson won the following day at Michigan. He will enter Sunday’s race winless this season, and his No. 42 Chevrolet seems to be lacking the gains in speed that Hendrick Motorsports’ Camaros have enjoyed recently.
“I’d like to be making as big gains as what, say, the Hendrick guys have,” he said. “But, I feel like we started off way better than they did. So, they’ve had more room to get better. But I feel like they’ve kind of surpassed us maybe a little bit the last few weeks. And there are obviously other teams that are better than we are, too.
“I feel like we’re getting our stuff better every week. We just keep getting better and there are some good tracks for us in the Playoffs. If we could just get some luck one of these times in the Playoffs maybe we can make a run at the championship. So, we’ve just got to keep working hard and thinking about what it takes to get better and better every week; which, I feel like we have the right group of people at the race track and the race shop that we can do that.”
It also helps that Chip Ganassi Racing is poised to take delivery on its own Optical Scanning Station, which is used by NASCAR for at-track inspections and helps teams optimize their cars.
Larson credits Hendrick’s turnaround to its recent acquisition of an OSS, which most big teams (such as Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Furniture Row Racing) have.
“(Hendrick) finally (has been) able to learn where they can push the limits on things,” he said. “So, it sounds like maybe we have (an OSS) coming, so I’m really excited about that. Hopefully we can get it up and running before the playoffs start. We’re budget racing.”