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Kyle Larson Starts Sixth, Pursues Second Darlington Win

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson clambers into his Terry Labonte throwback ahead of Saturday’s on-track action at Darlington Raceway. (Photo: Kyle Ritchie | The Podium Finish)

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Kyle Larson carries himself with a lot of Jeff Gordon’s swagger combined with the determination prevalent with Terry Labonte. Fittingly, the 25-time NASCAR Cup Series winner enters Sunday’s Goodyear 400 at Darlington Raceway with the colors of Labonte’s No. 5 ride from 1994 to 1999.

When Larson saw the distinct yellow, red and white colors of Labonte’s No. 5 Chevrolet, he went from a two-year-old in Elk Grove, California, to a fan attending Cup races at Sonoma Raceway age six.

Even as Larson grew up as a Gordon fan, he understands the special meaning of his latest Darlington throwback, a faithful recreation to the No. 5 ride of “Texas Terry” and his successes with Hendrick Motorsports.

“We’ve been trying to run this paint scheme ever since I joined Hendrick Motorsports and I am glad we are finally getting to run it,” Larson said in a team press release. “It’s such an iconic paint scheme and it’s cool that Terry will be in Darlington and see it on the track once again.”

In fact, Labonte and his family intend to attend Sunday’s race at “The Lady In Black” to see the colors that made the Corpus Christi, Texas, native enjoy his finest years in Cup. At age 37, Labonte’s career was revitalized from a consistent, dependable top 10 finisher to a championship contender.

Much like Labonte, Larson has enjoyed his second chapter of Cup with the No. 5 car. Joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2021, Larson has won 19 of his 25 Cup races and the 2021 Cup championship in the span of four seasons.

Last year, Larson finally snagged a victory at the 1.366-mile speedway in the prestigious Cook Out Southern 500, one of the crown jewel races in Cup. For the versatile racer, given his background in sprint cars, open wheel cars and stock cars, Darlington suits his driving style.

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson knows a thing or two about racing against the high line at Darlington in his Terry Labonte throwback colors. (Photo: Kevin Ritchie | The Podium Finish)

“I love racing at Darlington because we are right up against the wall,” he shared. “I was finally able to get to Victory Lane in a Cup car last year. It was such a cool night to celebrate a Southern 500 victory with the team. Hopefully, we can battle for the win again on Sunday.”

So far, Larson has done his part by qualifying sixth and posting the third fastest time in a 10-lap consecutive run average. Long run speed is essential at Darlington given its abrasive surface and tendency to punish drivers and cars for being a rabbit.

Larson enters Sunday’s race with momentum given his historical victory last Sunday evening at Kansas Speedway. Ahead of Sunday’s race, he shared his mindset about setting up the race winning pass of Chris Buescher at the 1.5-mile intermediate track.

“I was planning to go to the outside no matter what,” Larson revealed. I honestly thought that he would just run low and fast; kind of run the shorter distance. So, when he kind of ran the middle, I was like – oh yeah, like wow.. here we go! But it wasn’t until l got exited off of the corner, like to the straightaway, that I thought we still had a shot here. Like when I had initially got there, I thought he was going to throttle up and kind of like – not move me up, just like I wasn’t quite there enough I thought.

“When you watch a replay, it looks different than what you see in the helmet. I remember when I kind of throttled up to try to get to his quarter, I thought he was going to be able to throttle up; get clear in front of me and then I would get aero-tight. But then when I stayed there, I still was like – alright, now I’m crashing because I’m just in an awkward spot here with aero and the way that Turn 4 kind of sharpens up on exit. I just thought I was going to run out of space.. not even like him doing anything dirty or anything like that. He left me enough room and all that. Yeah, we got off the corner and then it was just about how the run was going to work out, and thankfully, it barely worked out.”

Typically, Larson has been on the receiving end of a race decided in the final laps. He empathized with Buescher given how NASCAR scoring initially placed Buescher ahead of Larson by 0.001 before a photo finish camera conclusively showed Larson edging the Prosper, Texas, native at the stripe.

“Yeah, I mean I’ve definitely lost plenty of races late in the going, I feel like, than I’ve won,” Larson explained. “So yeah, it’s tough, especially in a finish like that. You think about it a lot. You overthink it. There are many different ways that you can think about running the last lap to have a different result where you win. And I think you just have to kind of process all of those different scenarios in your head; log it and then try to be better for the next time a situation, if it ever happens, occurs like that.

“And then you just have to try and move on from it, which is difficult. But the best way to move on from things is just to get back behind the wheel. That’s what’s always been good for me. When I’ve had tough races, or good races, it seems like I’ve got a race a day or two later. I don’t kind of ride that wave too much, or the wave is quicker, I guess, which kind of steadies me out maybe a little bit It’s tough. Losing like that is very difficult, but he seems like a very even keel guy that probably doesn’t let it linger too long.”

Larson hopes to be on the winning end of the Goodyear 400, a race he has been painfully close to triumphing in the past three years. Like the spring race at Kansas, it is a race that has been within grasp of the California native, just needing the right circumstances to play out as they did last Sunday at Kansas and last September at this venue.

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson walks the length of pit road before qualifying for Sunday’s Goodyear 400 at Darlington. (Photo: Kevin Ritchie | The Podium Finish)

Following the 293-lap race, Larson prepares for his Indianapolis-Charlotte double with practice and qualifying for the 108th Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Speedway, Indiana.

Between the travel between Indiana and North Carolina for the next couple of weeks, Larson feels as prepared as ever to take on the 1,100 miles of racing and the constant flyer’s mileage he will rack up when all is said and done.

“I think I stay prepared for things like this because I race all the time,” he said. “These next two weeks, honestly, I feel like are simpler than most of my weeks. I’m in Indiana for a full week, and I’m behind one certain type of car for the majority of that week. A lot of times, my schedule in the summer will get crazy, where I’m racing on a Sunday and then I’m flying to go race a sprint car one day.

“And then I’m driving three hours to go race a dirt late model and then something else that weekend. So, I think times like that probably prepare me for the month of May more than anything. I think having good people around you too; having good, organized logistics help, as well.”

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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