Ailene Voisin

Kyle Larson, parents savor his first NASCAR Sprint Cup win, spot in Chase

Kyle Larson celebrates last Sunday after winning at Michigan International Speedway for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory. The Elk Grove native and 2014 Rookie of the Year also clinched a berth in the 16-driver playoff for the season championship.
Kyle Larson celebrates last Sunday after winning at Michigan International Speedway for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory. The Elk Grove native and 2014 Rookie of the Year also clinched a berth in the 16-driver playoff for the season championship. The Associated Press

Mike Larson, who has been around the tracks more than a few times, strains to lock down his emotions. He silently roots for his son, Kyle, one of the bright young stars competing in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series, and studiously monitors the races on a laptop and a television screen.

But not last Sunday. Last Sunday he completely lost it.

When Kyle Larson and car No.42 crossed the finish line first at Michigan International Speedway, Mike Larson cried like a baby. His baby had finally broken through for his inaugural victory after months of close calls, near misses, blown tires and increasing frustration.

“I felt like I had a run a marathon,” Mike Larson said last week from his home in Elk Grove. “When Kyle finally got a chance to call us, he said, ‘Dad, can you believe the ceremonies went on for almost two hours?’ I told him, ‘Son, everybody has been waiting for you. This is huge for you and NASCAR. They want to squeeze everything out of this. Enjoy it.’ 

Sacramento’s first family of racing – and the Larsons have been working at this since Kyle was in diapers – is eager to celebrate in person. That happens soon enough. Days after his victory secured one of 16 spots in the Sprint Cup playoffs, the younger Larson competed at Darlington on Sunday and scheduled an early flight to Chico for the Outlaw Kart Showcase on Monday and Tuesday at Cycleland Speedway in Oroville.

I had been close to winning a few times these last two seasons, but I just couldn’t get it done. It was frustrating. And you never know when the opportunity is going to come. Getting the monkey off my back feels great.

Kyle Larson

That is sooo Kyle Larson. You can take the boy out of the kart, but even though he is 24, with only a trace of a whisker, you can’t take the kart out of his heart. Cycleland is where this all began, more or less, and NASCAR’s newest title contender still heads back to his familiar dirt tracks whenever he gets the chance.

“I love kart racing,” Larson said Wednesday, “and this is my way of giving back to the fans. It’s a great opportunity to help grow the sport.”

Again, while Larson is barely out of his teens, it feels as if he has been around forever. The Elk Grove native was still in diapers when his parents, Mike and Janet, gave up their Kings season tickets and began frequenting tracks throughout Northern California. Before the personable, 5-foot-6 Kyle completed high school, he was already projected as a major talent in kart and open-wheel events.

After moving to NASCAR full time, he earned six top-10 finishes in 2014, including three second places, and was named the Rookie of the Year. He posted a third-place finish at Martinsville in April, a fifth-place finish at Homestead last year and one top-10 finish at every Chase track.

But until Michigan, that first win remained elusive. Restarts, tire issues, mistakes coming out of the pit and lousy timing all seemed to conspire against one of racing’s most popular stars.

“I had been close to winning a few times these last two seasons,” Larson acknowledged, “but I just couldn’t get it done. It was frustrating. And you never know when the opportunity is going to come. Getting the monkey off my back feels great.”

Before his victory in Michigan, one of the two remaining races that factor into the standings for the 16-driver playoffs, his parents were increasingly stressed. As usual last Sunday, they each sought their private space. Janet watched from a room downstairs and, according to Mike, was heard muttering a play-by-play at the screen. Mike remained in the upstairs bedroom, seated on the bed, simultaneously watching on TV and quietly monitoring the race on his laptop.

“It was getting to the point where I was losing hope,” he said. “Kyle has been really fast since Dover, and for him to be that close so many times, to have all that talent and still to miss out, that was hard to take. It was like there was a cloud over him and it wasn’t going away. He was in a funk and I was a funk. I have to admit. When he won, I cried.”

When Kyle finally got a chance to call us, he said, ‘Dad, can you believe the ceremonies went on for almost two hours?’ I told him, ‘Son, everybody has been waiting for you. This is huge for you and NASCAR. They want to squeeze everything out of this. Enjoy it.’

Mike Larson, on the aftermath of his son Kyle’s first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory

While nothing quite matches the biased love of a protective parent, the even-tempered Kyle privately fretted but never panicked. He led for 41 laps at Michigan but appeared destined for another second-place finish after a late restart with nine laps to go. Instead, Larson rocketed out and ahead of rookie Chase Elliott, then held on for his first Sprint Car win.

“Our car was really good,” Larson said. “It had a lot of speed and was easy to drive, and everything just went right. Obviously, this is a great time of year to build some momentum with only two (and now one) races left before the Chase starts.”

Asked what he said when he spoke with his parents, the personable Larson laughed. He envisioned the familiar scene back home: His father in the bedroom upstairs, swallowing his nerves. His mother commenting throughout the race, relieving her stress with words and noises. Both finally getting together and enjoying the celebration.

“Someone handed me a phone,” Larson said, “and I all I could hear was a lot of noise. They are not the type to be screaming and yelling, but I could tell they were excited.”

A family reunion of sorts will take place at the dirt track where it all began. Kyle in his kart. Mike offering instructions. Janet cheering and organizing and promoting.

“It would have been great to have been in Michigan,” Mike said, “but I prefer a win over being there.”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, avoisin@sacbee.com, @ailene_voisin

Back at the track

  • What: Kyle Larson’s Outlaw Kart Showcase
  • When: Monday and Tuesday; gates open at 2 p.m., hot laps start at 5 p.m.
  • Who: Larson will compete in the Open Division on Tuesday
  • Where: Cycleland Speedway, 47 Nelson Road, Oroville
  • Daily tickets: $20 for adults, $10 for younger than 12
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