Chasing the Cup with Kyle Larson

The versatile Kyle Larson chases his first NASCAR Cup Series championship. (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

The versatile Kyle Larson chases his first NASCAR Cup Series championship. (Photo: Jonathan Huff | The Podium Finish)

By all means, Kyle Larson remains one of the most intriguing storylines during this NASCAR Cup Series season. On the strength of five wins, 15 top fives and 20 top 10 results, Larson and his No. 5 HendrickCars.com/Valvoline Chevrolet team continually impress.

Earlier this year, Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels enjoyed a three race winning streak from Charlotte to Nashville. Larson also enjoyed a remarkable win in this year’s NASCAR All-Star Race.

Similarly, Larson’s successes are catalyzed by the incredible, consistent fast stops by his pit crew each weekend. When it comes to money time in a race, “Yung Money” knows his over the wall brigade delivers with sub-13 second pit stops.

Moreover, the 29-year-old Elk Grove, California native enjoyed a patented win at Watkins Glen International in early August. Undoubtedly, Larson and his No. 5 team want more victories before the championship fight at Phoenix Raceway.

Earlier this week, I caught up with Larson as we discussed the concluding regular season races, his mindset during the Playoffs, dirt track racing and the “Hendrick Way.” Now, let’s start “Chasing the Cup with Kyle Larson.”

Rob Tiongson :  First of all, thanks again for joining us here on The Podium Finish. Congratulations on making the Playoffs and advancing into the Round of 12.

Now, you won the regular season championship with five wins and incredible consistency ahead of the Playoffs. How did you feel about your team’s performance and your overall execution during the final four regular season races from Watkins Glen to Daytona?

Recently, Kyle Larson drove from 37th to sixth at Richmond Raceway. (Photo: Philip Goodman)

Recently, Kyle Larson drove from 37th to sixth at Richmond Raceway. (Photo: Philip Goodman)

Kyle Larson : Yeah, I thought we did a really good job and feel like we were in a good place, headed into the Playoffs with a win at Watkins Glen and some other good runs. So yeah, and we’ve been competing well so far in the first few races of the Playoffs. So that’s been good, and I look forward to the rest of year.

Tiongson :  Yeah, you’ve had some exciting battles, of course, going into the Playoffs with that number will finish at Darlington. And of course, going from last place to sixth at Richmond, tell me what your mindset was before, during and after those first two races of this Playoff round.

Larson : I mean, I think, just excited to get the Playoffs started before Darlington and had a great car that race and came up just a little bit short of the win. You know, but it was good to get off to a good start and gain a lot of points.

And then Richmond heading into there, you know, earlier this year, that was our, by far, worst race that we had. And yeah, so wasn’t expecting to do very good there. But our car was much better. And we will have a good race and come up with a sixth place finish.

So lots of hard work to prepare a faster race car, we had a really new year, and it paid off to get us locked in through through Bristol.

Tiongson :  Now, of course, I don’t want you to have to give away too much secrets. But during the telecast, it was mentioned that your team kind of borrowed off the setup off Alex Bowman’s team. Did that play a contributing factor for your team having that great run at Richmond and especially that riveting first stage?

"It's nice to having teammates to bounce ideas off of." - Kyle Larson (Photo: Michael Guariglia | The Podium Finish)

“It’s nice to having teammates to bounce ideas off of.” – Kyle Larson (Photo: Michael Guariglia | The Podium Finish)

Larson : Yeah, I mean, I think it’s nice to having teammates to bounce ideas off of. Obviously, Alex [Bowman] won the race earlier in the year there. So you know, we were really bad. So yeah, we got to look at his notes and applying to our race car. And we were a lot better. So, Chase [Elliott] was was much better as well. So it goes vice versa.

You know, I think they probably look our notes a lot at places, you know, when we go back. And can you put that underneath underneath their car, too. So it’s good, you know, our teams work great together. And it’s pretty open book there at Hendrick Motorsports. So I think that that lends to having success.

Tiongson :  Think it attributes as well, with the way that you guys were able to get into Playoffs and get, I think, over a quarter of the regular season wins as well. So I would imagine that’s going to hopefully carry over into the rest of this Playoff round. And also to you have a bit of an ace in the hole with crew chief Cliff Daniels.

Now, I would imagine you get some great feedback and notes to look upon from the regular season with these upcoming races. So how do you and Cliff try to find that balance between you know what worked in the regular season to the playoff races, especially with the conditions changing and the competition getting better as well?

Larson : Yeah, I think you take all that in and try and prepare and make your best guess on what you think is going to be the fastest. So yeah, I mean, you can’t you can’t expect to go to a track again and be, you know, as good as you were the last time there like we’ve been to Vegas. We were really good earlier this year.

But like you mentioned, you’re the weather can be different. I’m sure it’s gonna be warmer or cooler, and things will react differently. But, you know, I feel like we have a great notebook to look at. And, you know, Cliff and everybody on the No. 5 car does an amazing job of preparing. So I think we’re all really confident when we head to the racetrack.

Tiongson :  It definitely shows as well because of these great finishes you’ve had basically all season long and overcoming a tough start at Richmond in the spring in and really rocking it last Saturday night.

Now, kind of talking Playoffs in a general perspective. Of course, it’s been pretty exciting this year in NASCAR with the mix of talents winning races, and that finish you had with Denny [Hamlin] where you basically “yeeted” it to get to try to win the race. What’s your thoughts on potentially bringing over new fans during this season and especially during the playoffs?

"I feel like my fan base has grown a lot through the success I've had these last couple seasons." - Kyle Larson (Photo: Michael Guariglia | The Podium Finish)

“I feel like my fan base has grown a lot through the success I’ve had these last couple seasons.” – Kyle Larson (Photo: Michael Guariglia | The Podium Finish)

Larson : Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, it’s cool, I guess, to feel like you’re having an impact on the sport positively. So yeah, I feel like my fan base has grown a lot through the success I’ve had these last couple seasons. And it’s been fun to compete for wins, you know, each week.

Tiongson :  And it’s definitely fun to watch as well, from my perspective, just because you can never count yourself in the No. 5 team out any race weekend. It’s definitely a pleasure to watch for sure. You’ve also been tearing it up on the dirt tracks with your wins in the Chili Bowl and Knoxville Nationals. So how does racing in the dirt track scene help you with your NASCAR efforts now and especially once we get into the offseason?

Larson : Yeah, I mean, I really enjoy racing. Everything that I get to, I think, anytime I get an opportunity to race a car, you know, that to me, it doesn’t really matter what type of car it is. I feel like anytime I can race, it’s just, I’m bettering myself as a racecar driver. And it’s another opportunity to get better at what I do for a living.

So I’m fortunate to race for some really great race teams, and you have great equipment, and each and every race I run and you know, that helps my ability to learn too. So, yeah, it’s been good. And just staying active. And staying in race shape is really important to me.

Tiongson : And being young, too, because it’s admirable how much how little sleep you got during the Indianapolis race weekend and still nearly won the race. If I were to do what you did, I’m pretty sure I would not have done as well. So it’s pretty crazy to think that you could have that quick turnaround and still perform as well.

Larson : Yeah, I get used to being busy. You just. …it’s all, it’s all kind of whatever. (chuckles) But no, I think that the main thing is as long as you have a good race car, that kind of does everything for you.

Tiongson :  Oh, yeah, for sure. If you have a good job, you’re you’re willing to get up there. Even if it’s one hour off, it makes it more fun, for sure. And you have a lot of good people around you as well. So I wanted to follow up with that.

What’s it been like to have Jeff Gordon, somebody that you’ve idolized long before you got into NASCAR, around in terms of his presence in conversations with him being an executive and a team leader at Hendrick?

"[Jeff Gordon] is obviously a past, extremely good racecar driver, Hall of Famer, champion." - Kyle Larson (Photo: Michael Guariglia | The Podium Finish)

“[Jeff Gordon] is obviously a past, extremely good racecar driver, Hall of Famer, champion.” – Kyle Larson (Photo: Michael Guariglia | The Podium Finish)

Larson : Yeah, it’s great to have Jeff around often. You know, he plays a huge role in Hendrick Motorsports and to have somebody you know that you know has everybody’s best interests in mind is great. You know, he’s obviously a past, extremely good racecar driver, Hall of Famer, champion. So, to have that kind of support on the driver side, as well as you know, him understanding how you, I guess, a driver’s needs are is good, too.

So, yeah, he’s great to have around and to have all of his knowledge. And expertise is great for us young guys. So you know, he’s been awesome. And he’s still young, too. So, you know, I definitely feel like Hendrick Motorsports is in a great spot for the future.

Tiongson :  And you’re in a very enviable position because a lot of people like you and me who grew up with him racing, you’re getting to have one of the best around to talk to you. So that’s pretty cool that you have him whenever you need to get his advice or input for sure.

Now, there’s been some interesting changes for next season. I know you’re kind of focused on this year. But of course, with Gateway joining the fray and the Bristol dirt race on Easter Sunday evening, there’s only one off weekend for the entire ’22 season. But what’s your thoughts on these changes and how it may impact your dirt racing schedule for next year?

Larson offers interesting, candid thoughts about the 2022 schedule. (Photo: Michael Guariglia | The Podium Finish)

Larson offers interesting, candid thoughts about the 2022 schedule. (Photo: Michael Guariglia | The Podium Finish)

Larson : Yeah, I mean, I think. …whatever. It’s, I mean, it’s whatever. There’s no changing it now, but our season is already long, grueling and tough as it is. And dirt racing aside, I think everybody would appreciate, you know, more than one off weekend. But like I said, it is what it is. And I’m sure once we get in the season, we won’t even really notice it. So yeah, it’s cool, though.

I mean, I like the new addition to the schedule and, you know, different races around throughout the year, things like that. So yeah, I think it’ll be exciting. I’m glad Homestead’s back in the playoffs. I really, really enjoy that track and glad to have it a part of the an important part of the season. Yeah, I think it’ll be really fun.

Tiongson :  One of those other changes as well, and I’m sure you’re excited about Homestead, is the fact that The Clash is going to be held in the LA Coliseum a few weeks before the Daytona 500. I know it’s a long ways out. But you know, how do you feel about racing at one of the most historical sports venues in the world, in front of one of the largest sports markets around?

Larson : Yeah, I think that’ll be a really cool event. I like that it’s, you know, an exhibition style race. And, you know, being in a historic place in a huge market is going to be great for our sport. And I think there’s opportunity to get new eyes on our sport. So, yeah, I think it could be really good. It’s a cool opportunity. And looking forward to that one.

Tiongson :  I am to just because it could be almost like Cars, the movie, in real life. But it should be fun to see those Next Gen cars out in the track with you guys figuring out and putting on a good show. From an outsider’s perspective, like we mentioned a little bit earlier, you’re driving for a team with a great reputation not only with success, but with great values and ethics. So I’m kind of wondering, you know, what are some of the qualities of the Hendrick way that you feel has made you a better person on an author racetrack?

"I think the biggest thing is the respect that he shows everybody." - Kyle Larson about Rick Hendrick (Photo: Michael Guariglia | The Podium Finish)

“I think the biggest thing is the respect that he shows everybody.” – Kyle Larson about Rick Hendrick (Photo: Michael Guariglia | The Podium Finish)

Larson : Yeah, I think just being around Mr. H and seeing the the respect that he shows everybody is is amazing. You know, you don’t get the sense from him that he believes that he’s a bigger, better person than anybody on the shop floor. So where I think a lot of times, you don’t really see that sometimes with business owners or bosses or whatever.

And this guy, he’s got everything that everybody wants. And he treats people fairly and equally, and I think that’s amazing. And he knows everybody’s names, he goes out of his way to learn about you, which is great. So I just think there’s so many examples of how you can learn off the him. But I think the biggest thing is the respect that he shows everybody. And that respect goes a long way.

Tiongson :  And humility, for sure, just because with all the success that he’s had as a car owner, he’s still one of the most gracious individuals you can ever come across in the garage area, which I’ve witnessed as well. So good observations indeed. A couple more questions. I know you’re taking some time in your busy day. We’ve talked about this in the past. And it’s good to talk about it, of course, about the overall importance of mental health. But how have you been optimizing yours with the heisting pressures prevalent in NASCAR and just being an athlete with a big platform?

Larson : My mental health? I don’t know. I mean, I guess, my family and spending time with my family and my friends. And I don’t know, I guess, really racing a lot kind of keeps my mind off of stress and pressure and things going on my life. But I mean, yeah, if you feel like you’re struggling with mental health, I mean, I believe it’s, it’s best to talk to somebody, you know, a friend, you know, did you know therapy or whatever, and, and you don’t hold it in? I think it’s best to you let people know and you can get help and get better.

Tiongson :  That’s good advice. And it’s okay to not feel OK, for sure. Last question for you to kind of bring it on a lighter note. What song from any genre, and of course, PG-13 rated right now, would you say is the definitive Kyle Larson theme song that reflects you as a person and as a racecar driver?

Might we get a surprise song from Kyle Larson for the Bristol Night Race? (Photo: Philip Goodman)

Might we get a surprise song from Kyle Larson for the Bristol Night Race? (Photo: Philip Goodman)

Larson : (chuckles) I don’t know. I’m not really sure. I don’t know. I’d have to I’d have to listen to a handful of songs that I could think of something. But I’m not sure I’ve off the top of my head.

Tiongson :  Well, I guess you could surprise us with Bristol if they’re still doing those driver intro, customized themes that they typically have done in the past.

Larson : Yeah, yeah, we’ll see.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Kyle Larson for taking the time this week as he’s focused on “Chasing the Cup!” Also, thanks to Jon Edwards and Hendrick Motorsports for their assistance with this latest interview on The Podium Finish. You can keep track of Kyle Larson on his Facebook and Twitter accounts and his official website. If you’d like to learn more about Kyle Larson’s “Drive for Five” efforts, be sure to check out his foundation’s official website. Lastly, for the podcast version of my interview with Kyle Larson, please feel free to listen to it below.

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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