Although it’s been a puzzling season for Kyle Larson, a win in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway may be a way to soothe the inconsistencies this year.
After all, the most recent NASCAR Cup Series race in California resulted in Larson’s first and only win of the year. The defending Cup champion has either encountered misfortune or had unusual circumstances take him out of the picture from multiple winning opportunities.
Recently, Larson was two green flag laps away from taking his second 600 win at Charlotte Motor Speedway. However, a cracking duel with Chase Briscoe resulted in his challenger spinning himself out in turn 2.
The spin led to one of two Overtime restarts with the first taking Larson out of contention when he and Austin Dillon tangled off turn 4. While he regained control of his car, he dropped to a ninth place finish.
Two weeks prior, Larson was within seven laps from winning at Kansas Speedway before making contact with the turn 2 wall, resulting in a what could’ve been runner up result at the expense of eventual winner, Kurt Busch.
At times, Larson’s been out to lunch, not for lack of effort, but for lack of pace such as last Sunday’s 12th place result at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway in Madison, Illinois.
Still, Larson, who enters Sunday’s race ranked seventh in points and 63 markers behind points leader and Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott, has a team and fleet of cars ready to defend their Cup title.
A fourth pole position, by speed, following Saturday’s qualifying effort seems to be a harbinger of the 29-year-old’s strength as a competitive, formidable contender at Sonoma. With a quick time of 77.776 seconds or 92.111 mph, he’s in a great spot to nab his second win of the year while defending his victory at this track.
“Really, really neat to get another pole here,” Larson said. “I think that’s five consecutive I heard. It’s cool.
“My car was really good in qualifying trim. I felt like I could have gone quite a bit faster there. On my good lap, I made a pretty big mistake there in turn four. So, I was surprised I ran the lap that I did because it was such a big mistake.”
A big mistake was averted by Larson’s handy driving, perhaps some of his dirt track experience showing at the renowned 1.99-mile road course. Moreover, he loved a recent change to the venue that may be a bit of a game changer with the removal of the turn 4 curb.
“Now that it’s not there, I don’t know why we ever had a curb there,” he observed. “It’s so much nicer without it and you kind of use up the same amount of track as you did before.
“So, it’s just less aggressive on your car, your body and your head bouncing off the head rest. I love how they did that. It’s got some good grip out there, which is nice. It’s a pretty straight and forward corner.”
In typical Larson candor, he points out how the competition has closed the gap while he and his No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevy Camaro ZL1 team are figuring out their Next Gen cars.
“My car felt really, really good last year,” he recalled. “Our car was just really good compared to the field everywhere we went last year. This year, things are a little bit tougher. Cars are more equal and they seem to be more of a handful here this year than last year’s car.
“I don’t think there’s much I can take from that, maybe just a little bit of technique and stuff you use to pass people and stuff like that. The cars don’t really drive that similar. There are some areas where it feels normal and then there are other areas where I seem to be struggling a little bit more, which I’m sure everybody is.”
Similarly, Larson is to Sonoma like Charles Leclerc of Scuderia Ferrari is to Monaco.
Now, he appreciates the homecoming, by all means. Still, his focus is on executing on Sunday afternoon to truly secure his Playoff spot.
“Once I’m in the car, no, I don’t really think about any of that,” he said. “But I’m sure during the race or before the race starts, I’ll definitely glance around the crowd and see many blue No. 5 shirts there are out there. I know I think in this section right behind us in the grandstands, it’s supposed to be the ‘Kyle Larson section.’
“I heard there’s supposed to be like thousands of fans with blue shirts, so that should be really cool. I always feel the support when I come home; and now that I’ve had some success, it’s just exploded. It’s been neat and like I said, seeing those stands, hopefully it’s really blue and that will be cool to see.”
Ultimately, as the final Cup race before the season’s only bye week, Larson has some incentive with pursuing another Sonoma win.
“Jeff Gordon, also another Northern California guy, has had a lot of success here,” he quipped. “I’d like to catch him in wins someday, so [I] have to go to work on that because he’s won a lot here.
“It would be neat. Like I said, it’s always nice to come home, but it’s especially nice when you can win.”