Race Weekend Central

Double Take: The Arrival, Rise & Potential of Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson has arrived.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to race fans — after all, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver came into the sport much heralded, being possibly the most hyped driver since Joey Logano’s entry into Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing a half-decade or so back. Despite only a handful of years racing on asphalt, Larson was going places, a fitting foil to Austin Dillon’s quest to become rookie of the year in all three national NASCAR series.

And boy, did he deliver! Eight top-five finishes, including three runner ups. Larson was going to be the kid to bring CGR back to relevancy, provided Ganassi could keep other top teams from snatching Larson up the way Rick Hendrick snatched Jeff Gordon two decades before.

But then, Larson kind of faltered. Nothing earth-shattering, but like Logano he suddenly seemed unable to live up to the promise others had made for him.

Unable to seal the deal at multiple races, including Dover International Speedway in early 2016 where many thought he should have moved Matt Kenseth in the closing laps, Larson fans were wondering just when the first win would come; it was getting unbearable.

And then came Michigan International Speedway. Larson led a quarter of the race, leading the field for 41 laps and claiming his first Cup checkered flag. A handful of steering wheel-free donuts later, Larson was in the Chase, and while he didn’t do much during his first trip to the playoffs, he did get progressively better as the 10-race stretch passed. He went on to nearly win his second Cup race at Homestead-Miami Speedway until a late caution relegated him to a second-place finish.

Which leads us to 2017. Larson nearly won the Daytona 500 and would have added another top two had he not run out of gas in the last couple laps. He finished second the next three races, solid runs but again making industry insiders wonder why he couldn’t close off races — especially Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he was passed by Brad Keselowski with under 10 laps to go.

He answered their question two weeks ago at Auto Club Speedway, winning the pole and the race, effectively locking him into the playoffs for the second straight year. But more importantly, he extended a point lead that he’d inherited the week before in Phoenix International Speedway, becoming the youngest point leader of the decade.

But that isn’t the only history Larson has made this season. Those streak of four top-two finishes? Reminiscent of Kevin Harvick’s run of eight in a row that occurred in late 2014/early 2015.

And who was the last driver to get his second career Cup win at Auto Club?  Jeremy Mayfield in 2000.

While no way indicative of how Larson will run this season, we can take a look at how those two drivers finished their respective years. Will Larson follow one of their paths? Or will he do even better?

Harvick’s 2015 was no slouch. While he didn’t repeat as champion, he did qualify for the Final Four based on his three wins, 23 top fives (20 of which were top-three finishes) and 28 top 10s. His season was easily the greatest since Jeff Gordon’s 30 top-10 season in 2007.

As for Mayfield, he won again at Pocono later that 2000 season while en route to a 24th-place finish in the standings (he missed two races with a concussion). He had six top fives and 12 top 10s, along with four poles and an astounding 11 DNFs.

So, those are the two very different marks for Larson to beat this season. How will he fare? Everyone will agree that he’ll do better than Mayfield, and most will argue he’ll finish the year worse than Harvick did; it’s just too hard to run at the front all the time to beat those numbers. But with a solid CGR team and confidence a mile high, Larson might be able to do the one thing Harvick couldn’t do during his 2015 season: win the Cup title.

Imagine the donuts he’d do after that victory.

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