AVONDALE, Ariz. – While the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season is three races young, Kyle Larson seems to be trending in the right direction as a championship contender.
Shaking off the 18th place result at Daytona and 29th place finish at Fontana, Larson nearly netted a Las Vegas victory after starting in the sixth position.
Although Larson did not emerge victorious in the Overtime restart in last Sunday’s Pennzoil 400, it seems that he and his No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet team hit the reset button rather quickly.
From jump street, Larson was the fastest in a single lap and 10-lap run in Friday’s 50-minute practice session. The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion backed up his Fast Friday efforts by posting the quickest times in Group B and the final qualifying rounds on Saturday morning.
Needless to say, it has been an ideal start to Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 race weekend at Phoenix Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
However, Larson may have been a bit surprised by his qualifying efforts, especially when he took to the track in Group B.
“Well, I didn’t expect to lay down the lap that I did on the first round,” Larson said. “I felt like we were going to have a good shot for the top-five in Group B. All those guys ran 60’s, and I was like ‘Man, it’s tight. I’ve got to put a good lap down here’. We were able to go like three-tenths quicker or something. So then I was really confident going into the next round.”
Naturally, human nature can be a tricky thing for anyone, with worries and fears seeping into one’s mind during the heat of the moment. Beyond the track conditions, Larson grappled with some thoughts that crept into his mind ahead of the final qualifying round.
“You get talking to yourself and you’re like ‘Man, did I overuse the tires there in the first round? Am I going to have enough for the next round? I’m in Group B versus Group A and their tires are cooler,'” he said. “So you’re trying to talk yourself out of it. It was obviously much closer of a gap.
“I lost those three-tenths that I had in the first round. I got a little bit loose going into (turn) one and had to wait a little bit longer than I wanted to on the throttle. I didn’t hit the chip long down the backstretch like I did the first time. I over-slowed into (turn) three. I got a good exit, and then you’re just staring at your lap time on the dash waiting for it to pop up a good lap. I saw the 60 and I knew that we got the pole.”
Larson tallied his second Busch Light Pole Award at Phoenix, a potentially good omen considering the track record for pole sitters in the past three Cup races.
“Qualifying is really important here.,” he said. “We got the pole in 2021 and that really helped us win the championship race. Joey (Logano) had an extremely fast car in the fall last year, but he got the pole as well and won. So I think that number one pit stall means a lot.
“Happy to be quick this weekend; quick in practice and have it translate to qualifying.”
Now, Larson hopes to tally his first victory of the year with a No. 5 Camaro that seems to respond well in any qualifying and race trim. Aside from racing logistics, there is also a bit of a hometown element for the 30-year-old.
“I enjoy Phoenix. 2021 was a great ending for us there, getting the win and championship. I feel like we’re usually on the cusp of being able to lead laps and win races there,” he said in a team press release. “It’s a unique track. Different than any other race track we go to. The shape of it, the size of it, the banking, etc. is unique to Phoenix.
“I also bought a place out (in Scottsdale) a handful of months ago, so it’s kind of like a home race for me now and I really enjoy going there.”
There is no time like the present for Larson and the No. 5 team as they prepare for the fourth round of a long, 36-race Cup Series season. A victory at Phoenix may prove indelible for their Playoff prospects along with notes for the season finale in 237 days.