AVONDALE, Ariz. – With the focus and attention on the Championship 4 field vying for the driver’s championship, Kyle Larson has meaningful incentive to pursue on Sunday afternoon at Phoenix (3 p.m. ET on NBC).
After capturing the checkered flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Oct. 23, Larson and his No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevy Camaro team earned a Championship 4 berth for the owner’s championship.
Larson’s team advanced into this particular title fight after Kurt Busch was sidelined for the rest of the season from his qualifying accident at Pocono Raceway.
Busch kept his No. 45 team high enough in points to battle for the owner’s title which prompted Bubba Wallace to switch from his customary No. 23 ride to the No. 45 car.
Through all of this, Ryan Blaney advanced into the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs with one of the final available spots for the driver’s title pursuit. However, his No. 12 Team Penske efforts did not clear the cutline to supplant Busch’s No. 45 team from this prestigious championship chase.
While Larson had a maddeningly frustrating Playoffs, particularly during the Round of 12, his performances in the past two weeks resembled more of the effort that resulted in last year’s Cup championship.
Prior to his first laps in his No. 5 car for this weekend, Larson offered his thoughts on the biggest takeaway of the season.
“The impact (that the Next Gen car) had on NASCAR this year has been really cool,” Larson said. “It was a big change in the sport over the last year. It was really cool how through all the supply chain issues and COVID a couple of years ago to see where the sport has come from and where they continue to move forward.”
Certainly, the supply chain concerns, the impacts of COVID-19 and slow emergence from the “show up and race” weekend formats will seem like strange outliers to the future generations of competitors and fans once 2020 through 2022 are long in the rear view mirror.
With Larson’s championship reign soon to be in the rear view mirror, as a driver in this case, he offered a reflective thought on NASCAR’s recent handling of these unique hurdles, especially with the Next Gen stock car.
“Maybe that’s something when you look back 10, 15 or 20 years from now and how it changed the sport,” he offered. “It’s something you can remind and teach younger generations about how far the sport has come to get where it is currently. It’s cool to be a part of this generation of car and this class of drivers.”
Considering the various kinds of stock cars that Larson has driven since his ARCA East efforts in 2012, he has a unique vantage point while only being 30 years old.
Then again, Larson is constantly learning and growing as a person and driver, particularly with how to keep elevating his craft and wits about him in his No. 5 car.
In spite of last year’s championship and the prospects of earning the owner’s title following Sunday’s season finale, he remains the same individual, for the most part, with more wisdom, experience and determination.
“I think what’s good about me is yes, there are things I should probably do differently,” he remarked. “But I’m me and that hasn’t changed from winning a championship or not. I’m still the same person I was a year ago this week before a championship, and I feel like that isn’t a bad person.
“This year has been great on many levels. I feel like through it all and through the ups and downs of this season, I’m still the same person and plan to be years from now.”
Despite posting the 13th fastest time in Friday evening’s sole practice session, Larson showcased his No. 5 car’s patented long run form, ranking seventh in a 10 lap average.
Moreover, Larson has a good, fast car on a short run, qualifying fourth for the season finale.
Ross Chastain, Chase Elliott, Christopher Bell and Joey Logano may be fighting for the driver’s championship. All things considered, Larson’s main foes will be Chastain, Bell and Logano, the challengers for the owner’s title for this year.
Much like last season’s championship weekend at Phoenix, Larson maintains that he remains as focused and committed toward putting all of his chips on the table.
“I feel just as focused and driven as I did last year to win the championship,” he said. “If I didn’t have a championship already under my belt, maybe I’d come in here a little more careless just because I’d be mad that I’m not in it. But with having a championship on my resumé already, I’m just happy that I have one.
“I’m happy that I have one. It doesn’t matter as much to me to get another. Don’t take that the wrong way because I want to win more. But I think I care a lot more because I already have one.”
There will be moments for Larson and his team to reflect on with pride such as the exciting wins at Fontana, Watkins Glen and Homestead-Miami.
In particularly, there are some meaningful moral victories such for Larson.
The Elk Grove, California native tallied top fives at Nashville and Road America during crew chief Cliff Daniels’ five week suspension in the summer, overcoming damage from a cut tire at Dover for a top 10 finish and earning his best finish at Martinsville with a runner-up result.
If anything, although there are some changes coming with the Next Gen car for 2023, Larson is offering a preview of his team’s might as one of the favorites for NASCAR’s 75th anniversary season.
“There are definitely things to be proud of this season,” he offered. “I think the fight that we’ve put in throughout the season to get better and become stronger as a team is something I’m proud of.
“Although we’ve done it a little bit late, we’ve gotten to the point where I feel confident when we go into the races in myself and the team. I look forward to one more weekend of trying to execute well and bringing another championship to Rick Hendrick.”
Luis Torres contributed to this feature directly on-site from Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Arizona.