Kyle Larson starting to realize dream after dominant breakthrough victory

Photo by Harold Hinson Photography

By Yvonne Jones, Staff Writer

FONTANA, Calif. —  Kyle Larson had always dreamed of the time when he’d be competitive every week. Well, that time has come.

Larson, 24, recorded three straight runner-up finishes before winning the Auto Club 400 and Auto Club Speedway on Sunday. The Chip Ganassi Racing  driver actually swept the weekend at the two-mile track. He also won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race on Saturday.

“In both series I feel like I have a shot to win every time I go to the racetrack,” said the wheelman for the No. 42 Target Chevrolet. “That’s always a lot of fun.  That’s always something I’ve hoped for, to get to a point of that in my NASCAR career.

“You know, in the past, I had racetracks where I knew I would be good at.  But right now we’re going to some tracks that aren’t great for me, and running up front.  It’s a lot of fun to have that confidence in the race team, go to the racetrack, fight hard and run for wins.”

Team owner Chip Ganassi said Larson, who is from Elk Grove, California, has added motivation when he’s racing in his home state.

“I do know that I think when Kyle comes back to California, he’s got a little more spark in his step,” Ganassi said. “I wouldn’t call this his home track, but it’s probably one of the tracks that’s closest to his home.  He’s got a lot of fans here.  Obviously from northern California.

“But, yeah, I think he likes this place.  I think this, Michigan.  I mean, he likes a lot of places, as you’ve seen the last few weeks.  I think he excels a little more here.”

It took Larson 99 starts to earn his first Cup win when he outdueled Chase Elliott at Michigan last August.

“He went through a bit of a learning curve, that I think none of us ‑‑ let’s say he went through a learning curve a little more than he did on a short track,” Ganassi added. “I couldn’t be happier because I think early in his career, the bigger tracks, it was a little bit of a learning curve, some of the more high‑speed places. “

Larson came out of the gate sharp to start his fifth season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. He challenged for the victory in the Daytona 500 but ran out of fuel in the closing laps and ended up 12th in the season-opening event. Then he started his run of seconds after that.

“Well, I’m really, you know, fortunate to be driving really fast race cars right now,” he said.  “Our cars are by far as good as they’ve ever been, really good at every racetrack right now.”

Larson said the second-place finishes didn’t really bother him. He was just haunted by a miscue that caused Ryan Newman to set sail for last week’s win in Phoenix.

He bounced back nicely, winning from the pole at ACS. The only other driver to do so at this track was seven-time champion and fellow California native Jimmie Johnson in 2008.

“Yeah, there wasn’t a whole lot of frustration,” Larson said. “Really my frustration last week was that, you know, I felt like I was in the best spot to win, and just made I guess a little mistake there.  So I wasn’t frustrated with the consecutive seconds, I was just frustrated that I was confident going into that last restart and didn’t get it done.

“To come back strong this week and get the pole and get the race win, it’s great to rebound from a mistake like that.”

Last week, the winning call – for Newman – was to stay out on worn tires. On Sunday at Fontana, crew chief Chad Johnston called Larson in for service with eight laps to go when Corey LaJoie’s No. 83 car brought out the caution.

“In general at a place like this where you have a lot of tire falloff, it makes that decision a little bit easier,” Johnston explained. “You get two or three laps on your tires, you’re kind of at a disadvantage. I try to always put him in the position to be the aggressor.  I don’t feel like there’s going to be anybody better on a restart than what he will be, especially if I give him tires.

“We had a fast enough car.  I didn’t figure that many cars would stay out.  Only three stayed out, which gave us the top and fourth, which I figured would work out pretty well for us.”

Larson led 110 of the 202 laps (race ran two overtime laps) on Sunday. He is now the only driver in the Cup series to earn points in every stage through the five races this season.

“I felt like we would have the speed to make the playoffs anyways going into the year,” he said. “But getting all these stage wins and then playoff bonus points is huge to come into the playoffs.

“Yeah, hopefully we can get more stage wins and get more race wins to kind of pad ourselves a little bit when it gets to playoff time, can use those when we need to in the playoffs.

Larson is having the best campaign of his five-year career. He is atop the standings, 29 points ahead of Elliott.  He had a career-high 10 top 5s all of last season. This year, he has already notched four in five races.

“Lots of fun to be Kyle Larson right now,” he said. “Our racecars are really fast, XFINITY and Cup.  It’s a blast to show up to the racetrack every week.”

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