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In the Hot Seat: Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson is focused on a strong Round of 12 starting at Texas. (Photo: Dylan Nadwodny | The Podium Finish)

FORT WORTH, Texas – One of the most dynamic racers in NASCAR, much less, all of motorsports, is Kyle Larson. No matter the kind of vehicle, the Elk Grove, California native is a factor.

Namely, Larson is described as a generational talent with the likes of AJ Foyt, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. His versatility is as pristine as his wheelman ways in his No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 fielded by Hendrick Motorsports.

On the track, the 31-year-old racer is tenacious, relentless and passionate. He pushes the maximum to deliver wins and results for his team like an old school driver who is not solely about points pursuing.

By all means, he keeps himself grounded. At times, he will be the first to point out his errors as a means to improve upon his approach each time out.

Still, the 22-time Cup race winner gets the job done more times than not. Particularly, as a driver for Hendrick Motorsports since 2021, he has finished in the top 10 at least more than half of the time he clambers into his car.

Likewise, Larson has been a dynamic part of a combination like Gordon and Ray Evernham and Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. The chemistry with crew chief Cliff Daniels is quite on sync in terms of getting the balance close with his car each race weekend and they hold each other accountable to give it their best.

Ahead of the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 400 at Texas Motor Speedway, Larson spoke about his postseason efforts, pursuing his second NASCAR Cup Series championship and his love of the high line. Now, it is time to get “In the Hot Seat” here with Kyle Larson, only on The Podium Finish!

Rob Tiongson: Welcome back to another edition of “In the Hot Seat” here on The Podium Finish. I’m pleased to be joined by driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro Zl1, Kyle Larson. Kyle, as you know, folks, he’s in the Round of 12 and he’s vying for his second NASCAR Cup Series championship.

Before we get started, Kyle, how are you doing today?

Kyle Larson: I’m good. I’m good. Just ready to get the Round of 12 started. And hoping for a solid round like we had in Round 1.

Tiongson: Yeah, Round 1 was certainly pristine as can be. You had an average finish of 2.33. And when your worst finish is fourth, you’re like, “Man, I can just repeat that three more times and we’ll get a second championship,” right?

Larson: Uh, no. (chuckles) I think we all understand the Playoffs are tough, and it changes week by week. Good runs help the confidence and momentum, but it’s a new round, a new set of racetracks and new challenges up ahead. But I feel good about this round. Starting off at Texas, a track that we’ve won at in the past, we were fast there last year, just had some hiccups along the way.

In Talladega, that’s a sketchy one, but anybody can go there and feel like they have a shot to win. And then the ROVAL is a place that I feel like we’ve ran well at. So, we’ve just got to keep executing and trying our best to stay up front.

Tiongson: Certainly, because the Round of 12 offers a little bit of everything. Unlike the Round of 16, which was the Southeast tour with Kansas mixed in, now all of a sudden, you have everything you can conceive of in terms of challenges and you touched upon that. With Texas this weekend, it’s not your ordinary intermediate like a Las Vegas, Homestead or Kansas. What makes Texas such a challenging track for drivers like yourself?

One of the key areas to succeed at Texas, according to Kyle Larson, is Turns 3 and 4. (Photo: John Arndt | The Podium Finish)

Larson: I think when you look at the weather, it’s supposed to be pretty hot in the 90s, so the track should be a little slicker than normal. And it’s a place that you run a lot of throttle at. Maybe we’ll be slipping and sliding a little bit more. It is a difficult place to pass, but yeah, we’ll see. You know, it’s interesting. You come off Turn 2 and you try and hold it wide open through 3 and 4 and carry a lot of speed on the frontstretch. But you’re on edge doing it.

So trying to get the balance right, especially the temperatures being hot as it is, is a challenge on the crew chiefs. It should be good place for us. Like I said, we’ve ran well there in the past, so I’m excited to get there.

Tiongson: How much of a difference will this year’s race be knowing that it’s 100 less miles? In the past, it’s been one of the few 500 mile races we have on the schedule.

Larson: Yeah. I think, honestly, I don’t know if much changes other than you have a little less time to get back to the front if you make a mistake. So I think that makes not making a mistake even more important. But 400 miles is still a long time. 500 miles felt like forever. So I’m glad that they shortened it some. But yeah, it does put a little bit more emphasis on on executing.

Tiongson: This is one of the more trickier tracks and the hot weather is just enough to deal with and trying to get the setup right as well. And you touched upon the challenging conditions that Mother Nature is going to provide. And I know you’re one of the more fit drivers in the Cup series. How important is physical fitness for you to not fall out of the seat and be able to hold on as tight as you can for all you can in these races?

Undoubtedly, Kyle Larson is tested to the maximum with the heat inside of his No. 5 car, especially at Texas. (Photo: John Arndt | The Podium Finish)

Larson: Yeah, I think it’s definitely important. I think the biggest thing is just hydrating throughout the week and the morning of the race, stuff like that. When it’s hot outside, these cars aren’t like… you don’t need big muscles and stuff to to race them. But I just think dealing with the the hot temperatures is the most important piece.

The Next Gen cars are really hot but we’re fortunate enough these days to have cool suits that help us out quite a bit. We have our fireproof underwear that is full of these, basically, water lines that plugs into a cool unit and pumps cool fluid through the suit and does a great job of cooling your core temp down.

If that wasn’t working, it would be very, very tough on the body. Hendrick Motorsports supplies us with the best comfort for the race cars and definitely makes the job a little easier.

Tiongson: I’ve seen that. It’s that black tube that comes out of your uniform. It almost looks like a space thing from science fiction, but how much would you say it cools you down as opposed to if you didn’t have that at all?

Larson: It’s a lot. There’s some weeks when I don’t think the temperature is too hot that I will not wear it during practice. And it’s just a 20 minute practice. But by the end of it, I’m sweating more than I am after a 500 mile race. That’s only 20 minutes. The car probably isn’t even up to full temperature by that point.

You’ve seen drivers who wear it and maybe their system fails and doesn’t work. Those guys are cooked at the end of the race, passing out. So, knock on wood, hopefully I don’t run into that issue ever, but it’s definitely a lifesaver for sure. It’s something that I went with in the beginning.

There were two systems. One is a much lighter system, but it doesn’t work as well. I run the big unit because it just works so good that I feel like I need it.

Tiongson: And I’m sure folks who are athletes or those who like to work out know how much water weight you lose and the sweat you get from just being out there for two to four hours of intense activity. So for anybody else out there who thinks race car drivers are not athletes, Kyle Larson is a proof that you need that cool suit because if you don’t, man, that’s a challenge and it’s bad enough as it is. So it’s good that you have that innovation around, to say the least.

Last year, your emphasis was to defend the championship. This year, you’re saying, “I want to minimize mistakes,” and you have. What makes this particular round something that you’re saying, “Oh, I’ve got to do a good job because in the Round of 16, we killed it. In the Round of 8, we could do a good job. And we know what we can do at Phoenix?”

Larson: Just for me and and for whatever reason, the Next Gen era, it’s just been a lot of inconsistency. This is the first time in the Next Gen era that I’ve had three top fives in a row. It might even be the first time I’ve had three top tens in a row. I’ve been a bit inconsistent. I try every week to finish as good as possible, but sometimes I think I try a little too hard and make mistakes or put myself in areas to get caught up in other people’s mistakes.

We’re just trying to limit all that stuff here in the Playoffs. And so far we’ve done a good job of that. But this round, I think, for sure is the one where it’s probably a little harder to maybe be consistent just based on the tracks that are in it. Texas, there’s a lot of strategy that goes on. So catching all that, right?

At Talladega, you’re trying to avoid a crash is is difficult. And then the ROVAL, you know as well, is kind of a wild card. If you can have a good run at Texas,

I think we’re 12 above the cutline now, we could gain another… gosh, 16 or so on the cutline going into Talladega. That doesn’t necessarily give you a ton of comfort, but you can afford a little bit of a mistake or a difficult finish and still hopefully be OK for the ROVAL. At least you feel like you’re not in a must win situation anyways. So we’ll see.

That’s why the Playoffs are exciting, There’s just so much unknown that can happen in any of these races.

Tiongson: And it’s perhaps the most unique postseason in any sport because it’s not like you’re the home team. You get like four games and the other team gets three at their home court. There is literally a road game except for Charlotte for most teams. So that’s what makes this so exciting.

And the fact that you’re racing against those who are not even in the Playoffs as well. And but the Playoffs this year is really interesting because there’s a good mix of different teams and organizations. How has the Next Gen car been able to create this parity within the field?

Larson: Yeah, it’s definitely created parity. I feel like for the most part, everybody’s setups are fairly similar. I think Gibbs and Hendrick, we’ve kind of been the two teams maybe above everybody else this year anyways. Then you have teams like JTG and Front Row who have done a really good job this year. I think that would have been just way more difficult with the old car.

I think it took a lot more resources and engineering to be competitive in that car than it does with this one. It’s been good for the sport to see other faces up front, other drivers and teams battling for wins, teams with smaller budgets being able to compete at a high level.

So that part of it is really good. It’s been fun and it all just kind of seems normal at this point.

Tiongson: It’s a nice change for sure. But like you said, like Hendrick and Gibbs, these are the top two teams. And of course, RFK Racing’s been in the mix as well. One thing that’s really made this season really interesting is the fact that your victories this year,

Kyle, have been at short tracks, except for Darlington, one of the few intermediates that we have left. What does it mean for you to have this success at a track like Darlington, Martinsville and then to win the All-Star race at North Wilkesboro and Richmond?

Recently, Kyle Larson won a crown jewel race at Darlington. (Photo: Dylan Nadwodny | The Podium Finish)

Larson: Yeah, t’s really cool. I haven’t typically been a great short track racer in my career, so this year’s kind of been odd to be as good as we have been on short tracks. Winning at Martinsville is something I never thought that I would do. And then going to North Wilkesboro, I was a little bit nervous going there just because of my history on short tracks.

But then we were really, really strong in the race. Richmond is a track that, surprisingly, I’ve won at twice in my Cup career, but it feels like my worst track or one of. Having success on the short tracks been been weird. But then going to Darlington, it’s a place that I always run really well at, just haven’t quite put it all together to win. Thankfully, this year, we’re able to execute a good race and finally check the Southern 500 off of our bucket list. So that was really cool.

And to win the Southern 500 and at North Wilkesboro in the same year is pretty pretty incredible. I don’t know when the last time a driver’s been able to do that, so definitely a special year already at this point. But there’s still a lot of racing left to try and get some more cool wins.

Tiongson: It’s been a great year, to say the least. And I can think of the last driver who actually accomplished that feat. It was Jeff Gordon in 1996. So you’re in good company. So to know that one of your heroes (did this) and that you’re now in his company with that… pretty fun to say the least.

I know a lot of folks consider you as one of their personal heroes. And the folks in Las Vegas have a great chance to go and meet you next month. Can you tell us a little bit more about this meet and greet that’s happening in Vegas?

Larson: We’re going to Jinya Ramen Bar on Saturday, Oct. 14 Jinya has been a great partner of ours and they’ve got really good food too. I’m looking forward to going there and eating some food, but as well as meeting some race fans.

Tiongson: It’s a good place for sure. What are some of your favorite menu items from Jinya Ramen Bar?

Larson: I like the… it’s like the spicy chicken ramen. It’s really good. Like, I never had ramen before getting hooked up with Jinya. I mean, just your typical top ramen in a bag, so that doesn’t really count. (chuckles) But like, legit ramen. That was the first time I’ve had it. And I was like, “Man, this is really good.” So I’ve been missing out.

But, they got a lot of other options too besides ramen. We had the spicy tuna, a little crispy rice cake that was really good. They’ve got all sorts of stuff. They’ve got a really big menu.

So, yeah, I definitely encourage everybody to come out, not only meet me, but try the restaurant. And I know they’ll be a fan of that as well.

Tiongson: It’s a win-win situation for folks in the Sin City. So next month, folks, check it out. Meet Kyle and get some good food.

I know we talked about this in the past with my previous outlet, but you’re known as somebody who loves to run in the high line and some folks exceeded that. But you are super comfortable with it.

How do you know the balance between the risk versus reward of running in that high line from a comfort and confidence standpoint?

Larson: Well, with the Next Gen car, it’s much tougher. At least the body is. So to me, there’s a little less risk running the wall nowadays. It’s a little bit easier to run the wall to for whatever reason. The aerodynamics, I think, just pack. It’s easier to pack air between the car and the wall and get better grip.

So I think that’s why you see a lot of people being able to run the wall now at say… Kansas or a track that’s got grip where you can run the wall. But I mean you’ve got guys like (Tyler) Reddick or myself can still stand out running up there

We’re just comfortable carrying speed up there and it’s been something that clicked with me early on in my career. I try to use it to my advantage at the few racetracks that you can. So, it’s just an area to stand out above the others and gain some lap time on them.

Tiongson: And I’m sure the traction up there because no one really runs that lane… I’m sure that helps a little bit on the mechanical side for you, too, right?

Typically, the high line is Kyle Larson’s preference. (Photo: Dylan Nadwodny | The Podium Finish)

Larson: Yeah. It’s just really just getting as close to the wall without hitting it, you know? You pack air between the wall and the right side of the race car and that kind of holds you out of the wall. But you also got to get to the wall at the right spots with the right angle and the right speed.

And it’s hard to commit sometimes when you’re going 190 mph and you’re telling yourself you got to commit to running four inches off the wall or whatever it may be. So, that’s where guys like Reddick, myself, like I said, can stand out.

Tiongson: If you had all the money in the world and the resources to go build a racetrack anywhere around the world for NASCAR and sprint car competition, what kind of track would you build and where would it be?

Larson: For a dirt track, I would build a quarter mile, probably high bank similar to Pevely, around the Nashville area. There’s a big opportunity for dirt racing to strive in that region to build events around it. So I’d build the dirt track near Nashville.

I don’t know where I would put a NASCAR track. But I would probably do something similar to like Bristol, maybe a  little bit bigger than Bristol. I don’t know if I would do asphalt or concrete. I really like concrete, so maybe I’d keep it concrete, but I would probably do something similar to Bristol. Maybe make it a little wider, a little bit more progressive banking.

I think Bristol is a great track, so I don’t know where I would put it though. Like New Orleans, maybe. It’s tough. It’s tough to pick a location for a NASCAR track, but size and shape, that’s how I would do.

Tiongson: I love that concept already. And I’m sure eventually down the road you’ll figure it out.

But do you have anything else you want to say to the fans and the No. 5 team or those of The Podium Finish who are going to read or listen to your interview with me?

Larson: I just appreciate the support and hopefully we can continue to make the No. 5 Team fans proud of us. And hopefully we can go try and put in some good efforts to get a second championship.

So, thank you and appreciate the time and look forward to speaking to you again in the future.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Kyle Larson for taking time for his latest interview with The Podium Finish. Also, special thank sot Autumn Darracq on making this latest interview possible ahead of the Texas race weekend.

In addition to The Podium Finish, be sure to follow Kyle’s latest happenings on social media platforms like FacebookInstagram and X!

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 Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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