Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: Patience Seals Martinsville Victory for Kyle Larson

Something weird has been going on with Kyle Larson for the last few weeks. It’s not that he’s winning races regularly; he has been doing that ever since he arrived at Hendrick Motorsports in 2021. But who would have guessed that Larson would crash out of the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track race, only to win at Martinsville Speedway one week later? Are we sure that it was really Larson in the No. 5 car the last two weeks?

All kidding aside, it is hard to believe that Larson’s Bristol and Martinsville results are real. Larson is well-known and highly regarded for his dirt racing ability, traveling all over the country (and even the world during the offseason) to compete on the dirt. Wheeling a large, bulky NASCAR Cup Series car around a dirt oval may be a unique challenge, but Larson’s dirt racing prowess has made him the favorite for each of the three Bristol dirt races. An early crash derailed his efforts in the 2021 race, but a top-five finish last year set Larson up to battle for the win in his third visit.

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In contrast, Larson has never been a favorite at Martinsville, and Martinsville has never been a favorite of Larson’s. Through his first 12 Cup Series starts at the Virginia short track, Larson had only two top-10 finishes. During this first phase of his career, he developed a reputation for being fast at high-speed tracks, daring to run inches off the wall as if he were competing on an oversized dirt track. It was a technique that worked well for Larson at several venues, but one that did not apply to turning fast laps at Martinsville.

Joining Hendrick did help Larson improve at Martinsville. In his last four Martinsville starts heading into Sunday’s race, he had scored two more top fives and led a combined total of 145 laps (compared to just 35 laps through his first 12 races). Still, few would have considered him a favorite on Sunday. Even Larson himself, just after securing the win, admitted that Martinsville had been a weak spot for him.

“I never, ever, would have thought that I would (have) won here at Martinsville,” Larson said. “This place has been so tough on me. (It) just does not suit my driving style at all. I like to charge the center (of the corner), I like to roll momentum, and that’s just not what this place is like. But thanks to Cliff Daniels and everybody for making me feel like I know what I’m doing sometimes around here.”

It’s probably true that Hendrick has helped Larson step up his game at a track where he knows he struggles. Yet there is another important factor that helps to explain why he won at Martinsville and ended up in the garage at Bristol – patience. Larson was far more patient and strategically aggressive at Martinsville than he was at Bristol, and that patience earned him the checkered flag.

Larson’s experience at Bristol this year felt more like the type of race that you would see from him earlier in his career. When he drove for Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson would typically get off to a fast start and lead lots of laps early in a race until he either made a mistake or had some sort of setback. In trying to overcome this adversity, Larson tended to drive more aggressively or be harder on his equipment, which too often led to him making additional mistakes that would take him out of contention.

Larson’s Bristol race fits this pattern to a T. He started from the pole and led the entire first stage. During the second stage, he attempted to pull off a slide job on Ryan Preece that resulted in the Stewart-Haas Racing driver hitting the wall. This contact may have been the cause of Preece spinning out a few laps later.

Although Larson finished the second stage without further trouble, he spun out and lost all his track position six laps into the final stage. The spin stuck Larson deep in the field with little time to make up ground. While trying to claw his way back through the pack, Larson and Preece made contact again. The incident had the appearance of payback, and this time it was Larson who wound up in the wall. The resulting damage ended Larson’s race.

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Martinsville was very different. Larson had a 10th-place car for most of the event, but he displayed patience in navigating his way through the field all afternoon. The turning point for the No. 5 team came on lap 344 when the caution flag flew for JJ Yeley’s crash. While a handful of lead lap cars stayed on the track, Larson and his team elected to pit for two tires. Track position was king on Sunday, and the two-tire call allowed Larson to line up right behind the drivers on older tires. It took some time for Larson to work his way around leader Joey Logano, but he made a clean pass. Larson led the last 30 laps, the only laps he led all day and pulled away from the field to take the checkered flag.

It feels like this type of win would not be something we would have seen out of Larson even a few years ago. This was the rare moment of Larson letting a race come to him, taking only what his car could give him, and choosing when to be aggressive. While other contenders were running into problems on pit road or getting stuck in traffic, Larson found a way to be out front when the music stopped. Patience, and some calculated pit strategy, sealed the victory for the No. 5 team.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Larson going forward. The next stop for the Cup Series is Talladega Superspeedway, another track where he typically struggles. It would truly feel like a world turned upside down if Larson wins there too. Yet even if he doesn’t, the No. 5 team will still have at least 12 playoff points in the bank after its Martinsville win. Larson has added a grandfather clock to his trophy collection. Perhaps he is getting ready to add a second Bill France Cup.

About the author

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Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong student of auto racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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