Red-hot Kyle Larson has hope as he tries to figure out Martinsville

Photo by Yvonne Jones

By Yvonne Jones, Staff Writer

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The numbers suggest it, and Kyle Larson admits it, too: He’s still not at ease at Martinsville Speedway.

Larson is set to make his seventh start at the .526-mile paper-clip shaped track in the STP 500 of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday. His average finish in the six previous starts is 22.5, his third-worst of any track on the circuit. He notched his lone top 10 in this event last year, a third.

“I’ve gotten better at it each time, but it’s still not a track where I’m extremely comfortable,” Larson said during his media availability Friday morning.  “I can go fast in qualifying or early on tires, but I struggle at saving my stuff. I’ve got to get better at that.”

The driver of the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet has gotten better overall in 2017. Last year, his average finish was 14.7, then the best of his career. But he’s topped that at 3.8 this season and enjoys a nice cushion atop the point standings following his victory at Auto Club Speedway last Sunday.

“I’m glad to have a 29-point lead coming into Martinsville because this is my worst race track we go to, probably, even though we ran well last year,” said the Elk Grove, California native.

The 24-year-old wheelman’s attitude is definitely changing towards the tiny Virginia track, which was plagued by Mother Nature on Friday.

“This was probably the one race I looked forward to the least coming to, early on in my NASCAR career,” he said. “I was thinking about this last night. Normally I’m depressed driving up here to Martinsville because I suck. But, I’ve gotten better lately. So, I actually enjoy this place some.

“So yeah, I get kind of excited coming up here and the drive is not too long. It was fun. And it’s got a cool trophy, the Grandfather Clock. The atmosphere here is always really cool. Now they’ve got lights, too; so if it does continue to rain, we can go night racing which would be sweet.”

Larson did get his wish – somewhat – as rain wiped out qualifying on Friday.  As the points leader, he  was awarded the pole position for Sunday’s race. He was also on the pole last week at Auto Club Speedway.

“It definitely helps to start up front,” said Larson, the only driver to earn stage points in every race this season.

“I think this will be my most difficult track probably to earn stage points each of the stages, just because it’s not a track that suits me that well.”

This is a good jump-start for Larson, who never used to circle Martinsville on his calendar.  But it has to give him hope to learn that Jimmie Johnson didn’t relish his earlier trips to the short track, either.  Johnson now has a record nine victories there.

“I used to drive up here depressed and not excited to compete here,” said Johnson, later alluding to Larson.  “And then it clicked, so I would anticipate that happening for him before long.  He is just too talented of a driver.  So many different types of vehicles and tracks for it not to work for him here.

“I think my background, once I figured out how to drive this place has lent me all the success and has really been the backbone to it all.”

Larson’s improvement has shown on all types of tracks this year —  2.5-miler, 1.5s, 1-miler and 2-miler — so the signs are there that he’ll one day master Martinsville, too. He had an average finish in the 20s entering the Daytona 500 this year and almost won NASCAR’s ‘Super Bowl’ event. He challenged for the win before running out of fuel and ending up 12th.

And now his short-track program is catching on.

“Since our race cars have become better, it’s easier for me to learn,” he said. “Last year especially, I thought I got better at these short tracks. I ran a third here at Martinsville the first time and just out of the top 10 the second time. I can’t remember where we finished this first race but we finished second at the second Richmond.

“We’re always fast at Bristol. So, I’ve gotten better at the short track stuff. I’ve just got to continue to work hard at it.”

Despite his Sprint Car background, Larson said it took him a while to get up to speed.

“Sprint Car racing is short track racing, but it’s a totally different driving style than flat short tracks and stock cars,” he explained. “Sprint Car is on a quarter-mile feel like a stock car on a 1.5-mile at Charlotte because you’re still carrying a lot of throttle. I never drove anything like this until just a few years ago when I started stock car racing.

“So, my learning curve or whatever was way behind the guys who grew up doing this stuff. So, it’s taken me a little bit of time to learn it, but I feel like I’m competitive now and really could maybe challenge for some wins on these tracks.”

Larson’s goals for this weekend are somewhat modest, especially for a man, who reeled of three straight second-place finishes before the Fontana win.

“If we can get a top 5 or top 10 here, that would be a huge success,” he said. “We finished third last year. You never know. Our cars are so good right now, maybe we could contend for a win.” 

 

 

 

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