NASCAR driver Kyle Larson returns to Placerville Speedway
When the green flag waves on the Daytona 500 on Sunday, it will be business as usual for Kyle Larson.
The Elk Grove native begins his sixth season in stock-car racing’s top circuit with hopes of capturing his first title in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, all while balancing a recent change to his family life.
Larson, 26, is a newlywed, having married longtime girlfriend Katelyn Sweet in September. The couple has two children. Despite a demanding schedule that includes racing in multiple circuits, he says the balance isn’t too difficult.
“I take my family to every race, so I’m really not away from them that often,” he said. “I feel like I’m with them more at the race track than I am at home. It’s not hard to balance at all. ... It’s fun having them here so they can experience everything I do.”
His family will be on hand to see him drive in NASCAR’s signature race, which hasn’t been kind to Larson. He’s crashed out twice and his average finish is 16th, with a high of seventh in 2016. He finished 19th last year after running out of fuel.
“We didn’t qualify great, but I think our car will draft fine,” Larson said. “We just have to stay out of trouble and be toward the front near the end of the race.”
Even if he’s not able to reach Victory Lane, that won’t change the goal of lifting the trophy when the 2019 season concludes Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
He’ll have championship experience in his corner. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has a new teammate in Kurt Busch, the 2004 series winner.
“I’m excited to have Kurt. He’s a past champion, so there’s a lot of experience and knowledge he brings to the team and myself,” Larson said. “I’m looking forward to learning as much as I can and working with him to see how he works differently than what I’m used to.”
Busch recently told the Charlotte Observer he’s looking forward to working with Larson as well.
“Larson can be bigger. He can be better, and I see something in him,” Busch said. “That’s part of the draw of why I came here. There are plenty of reasons, but that’s one of those things on the side. It’s not a trophy. It’s not a win, but I would feel a sense of accomplishment by helping him out.”
Last season wasn’t as successful as 2017 for Larson, who has five victories in the Monster Energy series. He ran well in 2018 despite not winning a race, placing second six times in 19 top-10 finishes.
He said untimely cautions and narrowly being beat off pit road on the final pit stop contributed to the runner-up performances.
“A lot of the times we finished second, we ran 10th all race long,” Larson said. “We did really a good job on restarts and pit road to give ourselves a good shot, but I just didn’t have enough speed to get to the lead. I could have easily won three or four races if things would have just worked out a little bit differently.”
He acknowledges his competition but likes his chances with a little luck and a few changes.
“Our race car has got to get faster,” Larson said. “All the drivers are really good, so if your car is fast enough, and you and your team do a good enough job, you can position yourself to be a championship contender.
“I look back to 2017. We won four races and were contenders throughout the year, but we blew an engine in the playoffs. If we can get back to contending for wins as frequently as we did then, we’ll have a good shot.”
Larson discussed where he excels and where he wants to improve.
“The intermediate racetracks have been my strong suit because it feels similar to dirt-track racing, he said. “My weaknesses are flatter, short tracks like Martinsville, and places like that I struggle at and I need to get better at.”
A recent article suggested the sport needs saving and pegged Larson as the man to do that, but he just wants to do his job.
“I don’t let it put any extra pressure on me. I just go out there and race,” he said. “I don’t view myself as trying to save motor sports. I go out there and enjoy what I’m doing, and the fans seem to enjoy that as well.”