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NASCAR Cup Series

Kyle Larson Scores Long-Awaited Victory

No matter how many wins a driver accumulates in their racing career, that first career victory is a moment reflected upon with fondness and fervor.

Whether it happens as quickly as two races in Jamie McMurray’s situation back in 2002 or with teammate Kyle Larson after 98 prior NASCAR Sprint Cup starts, the feeling of that first win is unparalleled and a wondrous moment in time.

This past weekend for NASCAR was one for the history books in that three first-time winners stood tall, arms raised in the air in Victory Lane in the Camping World Truck Series, XFINITY Series, and Cup Series in the span of 24 hours.

Brett Moffitt’s smart race performance was rewarded with a trip to the winner’s circle in a somewhat delayed Truck race at Michigan International Speedway while Michael McDowell’s triumph at Road America was validation for the underrated stock car talent.

Ultimately, Kyle Larson’s first career Cup win on Sunday afternoon at Michigan takes the cake with what will wind up being a truly historical and memorable weekend in this sport’s 68-year history.  The 24-year-old Elk Grove, CA native has finally realized his first opus magnum that has been long awaited in the Sprint Cup Series.

Smart, savvy, aggressive, and versatile behind the wheel of his No. 42 Target Chevrolet SS fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing by Felix Sabates, at times, it seemed like that first career Cup win was an exercise in patience.

Runner-ups at Fontana, Loudon, and Kansas in 2014 as well as that close but no cigar second place finish earlier this season at Dover were just some of the frustrating moments for this young man in his quest to truly stamp his place as a winner in this circuit.

Yet, no matter how tempting it would be for Larson to reflect upon those races in hindsight, he took the higher road, realizing a day like this one would arrive.

Arms raised in victory.

Arms raised in victory.

“Fontana (in 2014), nothing I could have done to get by Kyle, that one,” Larson said.  “Yeah, there’s been a couple where I could have done things differently to get the win, cautions if they wouldn’t have fallen at certain times I would have won.

Yeah, I mean, with Matt (at Dover this season), I could have done something to get by him.  But that’s just not how I wanted to race him.  Like I’ve said, yeah, for a few months, you guys keep asking, What if?  What if you would have moved him?  Now I won, so we don’t have to talk about that anymore.”

Larson’s path to NASCAR somewhat mirrored Jeff Gordon, a racer whom the Californian looked up to when he was embarking on his career racing in the dirt tracks of the country.  Similar to Gordon, it’s not a stretch to say that Larson is a wunderkind who respects this sport and what it means to succeed in motorsports by doing the right things.

Graduating from NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program and quickly excelling within Ganassi’s XFINITY racing operation in 2013, the past three seasons have shown remarkable flashes of brilliance coupled by some of the most frustrating moments that would easily deflate even the most poised individual around.

However, Larson was not about to waver even when the frustration began to mount.  Instead, he looked towards the positives with his situation, starting with his hardy No. 42 team led by crew chief Chad Johnston to the promising fleet of cars assembled at the shop.

Just as Etta James once sang about how her love finally coming along, Kyle Larson can finally talk and realize his first Cup win has finally arrived.

“We’ve been close a few times throughout my Sprint Cup career,” Larson observed.  “To finally put it all together and get a win, it’s awesome.  Glad to get it before my hundredth start next week.

It makes me extremely proud because we didn’t start off this year good at all.  I was pretty down the first month and a half or so.  Once Chad got to get to doing what he wanted to do with the racecars, we picked up speed immediately, almost went out and won a couple races, almost won the All-Star Race.  We had a great month of May there, whatever that was.  We had some bad luck again recently.

I knew we had to get a win here in these next three races to be able to make the Chase.  Thought Bristol last week was probably going to be my shot to get a win out of these last handful of races.  Had bad luck there.  But they gave me an awesome car here.”

Starting 12th, Larson bided his time, working his way up to 10th by lap 10.  Dropping to 17th by lap 30, he steadily marched his way towards the top-five by lap 80 and save for some pit stop cycles on lap 110 and 160, he hovered inside the top-five for the remainder of the race.

Kyle Larson had the restart of his career.

Kyle Larson had the restart of his career.

The final box score shows Larson leading a race-high 41 laps, a remarkable feat considering the platitude of bad luck that seemingly hovered over the No. 42 team for the past three seasons.

Much like Gordon dreading a last minute caution while leading the race in his latter years in the famed No. 24 ride, it would be understandable if Larson and his team pondered about a wrench in their plans with winning their first race in the waning moments of Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400.

Following the final scheduled pit stop of the race, Larson was closing the gap between himself and leader Chase Elliott, a fellow young racer who was in pursuit of his first Cup win as well on Sunday.

Lap traffic hurt Larson’s chances of catching Elliott’s No. 24 Chevy in the waning laps, dropping from under a second to nearly a two second deficit that seemed insurmountable unless that caution flag, a race element that’s often derailed him in the past, flew with enough time to regroup for a restart.

One driver’s misfortune became another racer’s opportunity to finally make it all come together.  Following the caution for a piece of debris off Michael Annett’s No. 46 Chevrolet, the race went back to green on a lap 192 restart and from there, it was all about who wanted the win more than the other.

Yes, Elliott and Larson did not have the best restarts.  In fact, both looked like they were hanging on to dear life with their cars.  Then again, that restart showed why the Cup field is comprised with the best stock car talents around, as neither lifted nor flinched.

Coming to the first corner, Larson was able to muster enough power from his car to pull ahead of the outside line while Elliott regrouped and got past Brad Keselowski to take the second position.  From there on, it was a matter of awaiting for history to fulfill itself.

Much like Dale Jarrett finally scoring his first Cup win at Michigan in 1991 at a then young age of 34, Larson, at age 24 in 2016, affirmed himself as a victor in the most prestigious level of NASCAR.

Kyle Larson celebrates his emotional first Cup win with girlfriend Katelyn Sweet and son Owen.

Kyle Larson celebrates his emotional first Cup win with girlfriend Katelyn Sweet and son Owen.

Just as Jarrett’s first crowning moment was emotional personally and professionally with his father Ned in the ESPN broadcasting booth that August afternoon some 25 years ago, the same could be said for Larson as he celebrated his inaugural Cup success on Sunday with his team and his family in girlfriend Katelyn Sweet and their son Owen, a touching moment in what has been a trying month for motorsports.

When August of 2016 is in the rearview mirror months or years from now, it will be remembered as one that started out with the tragic accident involving Bryan Clauson, a beloved racer in the open wheel and stock car world.  Grief is slowly transitioning into hope and honor in that Clauson’s friends have remembered him in the best way possible – by driving with all of their might and concluding their efforts by simply parking it…in Victory Lane.

Somewhere in heaven, Clauson has to be smiling, as Justin Marks scored his first XFINITY Series win at Mid-Ohio, Ricky Stenhouse Jr taking a runner-up result last weekend at Bristol, and Kyle Larson stamping his ticket into the Chase with a big “W” at MIS on Sunday.

Sometimes, racing has a way of healing the deepest wounds with great weekends and stories that embody the spirit and resolve of those we lost far too soon.

Nothing replaces those remarkable individuals but those who battled alongside them over the years or were a part of their lives on and off the track are commemorating their legacies by being a part of the sport they loved so dearly.

Kyle Larson parked it as his late friend Bryan Clauson often did in his racing career.

Kyle Larson parked it as his late friend Bryan Clauson often did in his racing career.

As Kyle Larson perfectly summarized, “This is our job.  We love doing it.  He loved doing it.  It’s not hard to get in a racecar.  Especially we’re extremely sad, and still are sad, but after hanging out with the Clauson family, his fiancée Lauren at Knoxville, to see how strong they were being, really helps all of us.  All of their close friends and stuff.

Yeah, you hate it, you hate to see anybody go in racing, but especially somebody like Bryan that touched so many people, done a lot for a lot of people, charities and stuff like that.  It’s good to be able to park it in Victory Lane, like he would have said.  He didn’t like people doing burnouts and stuff like that, ’cause he wanted you to act like you’ve been to Victory Lane before.  But I hadn’t been to Victory Lane before so I was going to do some burnouts.”

Rob Tiongson is a sports writer and editor originally from the Boston area and resides in the Austin, Texas, area. Tiongson has covered motorsports series like NASCAR and INDYCAR since 2008 and NHRA since 2013. Most recently, Tiongson is covering professional basketball, mainly the WNBA, and women's college basketball. While writing and editing for The Podium Finish, Tiongson currently seeks for a long-term sportswriting and sports content creating career. Tiongson 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 is an alum of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and St. Bonaventure University's renowned Jandoli School of Communication with a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism.

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