Older and wiser, Kyle Larson has his grip firmly on the wheel of his NASCAR career – and his No. 42 Chevrolet. He’s ready to roll.
“It’s been a long offseason,” said the 24-year-old NASCAR Cup driver. “I’m ready to get going.”
In Sunday’s Daytona 500, the Elk Grove native enters his fourth season at NASCAR’s top level with more high expectations.
“He’s positioned himself very well,” said Sonoma Raceway president Steve Page, who has watched Larson develop from teen sensation to veteran. “He’s got all the pieces in place. He’s a very talented, instinctive driver racing for a good team in a good car with a good sponsor. He hasn’t quite broken into the elite level yet, but he’s got all the tools to get there.”
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Fox Sports’ Tom Jensen predicts a “breakout season for Larson” after the driver’s ninth-place overall finish in 2016.
“Last year, Kyle Larson won his first Cup race and made the Chase for the first time,” Jensen wrote in his 2017 season preview. “Although he didn’t advance as far as he would have liked in the Chase, Larson made significant progress. Look for him to win at least three races this year and challenge for a title.”
Larson’s experience gives him an edge in this NASCAR season filled with major changes – from the series’ name and championship format to how the individual races are run.
Forget Sprint Cup and the Chase for the Championship; it’s now Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and “the playoffs.” Each race will be broken into three segments with new scoring possibilities for each stage and caution breaks in between.
“It’s going to be a good change,” Larson said in a recent phone interview. “Racing won’t necessarily change a lot; all of us drivers drive hard every lap already. But we’ll be seeing changes in strategy. The main thing – at least I hope it is – is that fans tune into races longer. (Under the prior format), fans tune in at the beginning, tune out, then come back at the end. Now, there’s more important (moments) fans won’t want to miss. They’ll keep watching.”
At crash-happy Daytona International Speedway, Larson just hopes to finish in one piece. Sunday, he’ll start 16th behind pole sitter Chase Elliott.
“I can’t predict anything at Daytona,” Larson said. “I just hope to see the checkered flag when I go to these places.
“I hope we can be top 10 in every segment,” he said, referring to NASCAR’s new race format. “I would love to win here, but my main goal is just to finish.”
Larson’s personal Daytona experience has been bone-rattling. In his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut, he survived a horrific 2013 last-lap crash that sent his car into the fence just yards from the finish. In his first two Cup seasons, he crashed in three of four races at the superspeedway.
But in 2016, he finished in the top 10 at both Daytona races, including a seventh place behind winner Denny Hamlin in the 2016 Daytona 500.
With side-by-side racing at more than 175 mph, Daytona crashes are to be expected, Larson noted.
“Definitely, at the end of the race it becomes crunch time,” he said, “especially if a late caution (flag) comes out with 10 laps to go – here we go! You get ready because there’s an 80 percent chance of crashing right here.
“That’s why I don’t particularly like superspeedway racing. The percentage of crashing is very high. When you’re looking out the windshield, it may not appear that crazy. But when you’re thinking about how fast you’re going, three or four wide, it can get scary.”
Larson expects to make his greatest impact down the road at NASCAR’s “intermediate” tracks that favor his driving style.
“What I concentrate on is the intermediates, the medium-size tracks,” Larson said. “They mean more for our season.”
His first Cup victory – in his 99th Cup start – came at two-mile Michigan International Speedway, one of the fastest tracks in NASCAR. Although he became the first Japanese-American driver to win a Cup race, it didn’t change Larson’s life – other than to knock that first-win goal off his to-do list.
“My life’s not different,” he said. “It’s been so long now – that (win) was in August – I almost forget about it. A couple of weeks later, life goes on. Nothing is really different except a little more added confidence going into this year. For me, my life hasn’t changed. We all worked really hard to get that first win. Now, we’re working really hard for the next one.”
Larson is very happy out of his race car, too. Fiancée Katelyn Sweet and their 2-year-old son, Owen, travel with Larson to “90 percent of my races,” he said, living out of a 45-foot Newmar Essex motorhome.
“Katelyn comes from a racing family,” Larson said. “She’s always been around it and loves it as much as anybody. She always has a fear of missing out, so she’s got to be there. And Owen, it’s just a lot of fun to see how he changes every day. … He’s really talking a lot now, and he loves race cars. He loves playing with his cars, and he loves being at the racetrack.”
With his family still in Elk Grove, Larson looks forward to the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 25, the closest he gets to a home event.
“I love going home to Sonoma and would definitely love to win there someday,” Larson said. “Driving a car on a road course feels similar to driving a dirt car, the way the car moves around. I definitely wish there was more (road courses) on the schedule. I do well in them.”
In 2016, Larson’s No. 42 team members were still getting to know each other. Now, they’re a finely tuned unit for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“At the beginning of last year, we struggled a little bit,” Larson said. “They were learning me. Now, they know what I like in the race car and what changes to make.”
Crew chief Chad Johnston and Larson share similar passions, noted the driver. They can’t get enough racing.
“We have a lot of the same interests,” Larson said. “He’s into dirt racing, just like I am. We both bought mountain bikes, and we’re going to do that.”
“It’s nice to have something outside of our day-to-day job to connect on.” Johnston said via email. “Kyle’s a pretty easygoing guy, but when he puts on the helmet and gets behind the wheel, another side of him comes out that’s really competitive.
“We have a really good atmosphere around our team, which makes the grind of the season a little easier,” Johnston added. “Everyone wants each other to succeed, and that’s the key to getting Kyle and the (No.) 42 car into Victory Lane.”
They’re taking their schedule one race at a time.
“Ultimately, you want to win the championship,” Larson said. “For me and my race team, a good year would be to win a couple of races. If we make the playoffs, make the round of eight, and have a shot at making (the championship finals) at Homestead (Miami), that would be a really good year. That is my goal.”
When: 11 a.m. today
TV: Channel 40