Kyle Busch was talking about strategy for Sunday’s South Point 400 on his hometown track — how it might trend toward the conservative side for the 12 drivers who remain in the NASCAR championship hunt and want to get the second round of playoffs underway with a solid points finish.
“Much rather be able to get to the lead and be fast and set sail and not have anything to worry about, but that’s not always the case — unless you’re Kyle Larson,” said the two-time Cup Series champion from Las Vegas.
Last week at Bristol, Tennessee, Larson led a race-high 175 laps en route to his first playoff victory of 2021 after he won five times to claim the regular-season championship in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports.
He’s the driver on everybody’s mind again, especially after dominating the Pennzoil 400 in March at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in his fourth race back from a highly publicized NASCAR suspension. Larson also was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing for using a racial slur during a televised online race amid the COVID shutdown.
“I think there was a lot I learned about myself and about other people,” the remorseful veteran said about getting a second chance in the Cup Series. “I am a good person; I just made an ignorant mistake. After learning about others’ experiences, it made me a much more humble person.
“I think, too, you learn everybody should be deserving of a second chance. Thankfully, I’ve been given multiple chances. It’s got me in a position today to do some good things (on and off the track).”
Larson’s mother is Japanese-American, and his grandparents spent time in an internment camp during World War II. He is a product of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity. One of the first to congratulate him on the victory podium at LVMS was Bubba Wallace, the Cup Series’ only African American driver.
Wallace also came up through the diversity program that — combined with uncommon talent behind the wheel — has propelled Larson to the top of his profession.
Speeding toward a title
NASCAR races are divided into three segments called stages. With 14 stage wins and 59 playoff points that carry over into the 10-race playoffs, Larson has an inside track on becoming one of the four drivers who will decide the championship in a one-race showdown Nov. 7 at Phoenix.
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch are running second, third and fifth, with Hamlin having set the pace in the playoff opener at Darlington and Truex the following week at Richmond.
Fourth-place Ryan Blaney, an emerging force in the Team Penske stable that includes former series and Las Vegas race winners Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, has three regular-season wins and could pounce should the leaders falter.
But Larson, for one, is showing few signs of slowing.
After cutting his racing teeth on the California and Midwest open-wheel dirt track circuits, the 29-year-old has put together the kind of dominating season that rarely happens in NASCAR amid rules designed to promote parity.
During one six-race stretch, he finished second in three consecutive starts and first in the three after that, conjuring memories of Richard Petty’s stranglehold on the sport during the 1960s and ’70s.
“It was fun,” Larson said with a bashful chuckle. “You try and savor it as long as you can, because you never know if that will ever happen again in your career at the Cup Series level, it’s so tough.”
What: South Point 400 NASCAR Cup Series playoff race
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
TV/Radio: NBCSN; KXNT-AM (840)
Pole: Kyle Larson
Favorite: Larson, 3-1 (Westgate SuperBook)
Kyle Larson file
Playoff points: 59 (first place), six wins.
Car: No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Elimination history: Eliminated in Round of 8 in 2019; eliminated in Round of 12 in 2017, 2018; eliminated in Round of 16 in 2016; was not playoff eligible in 2020.
2021 playoff results: Darlington, second; Richmond, sixth; Bristol, first.
LVMS races: 10.
Best LVMS finish: First (spring 2021).
Average LVMS finish: 9.8.