Lar­son makes a mark

Break­through win also a vic­tory for di­ver­sity ini­tia­tive

Baltimore Sun - - NASCAR - On auto rac­ing

In a mo­ment that seems like an­cient his­tory now, Kyle Lar­son made a last­lap pass on Ben Kennedy to win the Pete Orr Me­mo­rial Or­ange Blos­som 100 at Florida’s New Smyrna Speed­way.

The year was 2012, and Lar­son was mak­ing his first start in a full-bod­ied stock car.

“I thought this stock-car stuff would be a lot eas­ier,” Lar­son said, re­call­ing the mem­ory Mon­day.

De­spite his strug­gles weav­ing through traf­fic in dif­fer­ent lay­ers of NASCAR com­pe­ti­tion, Lar­son has found other ways to cross the fin­ish line first and make peo­ple no­tice.

Con­sider this his­tor­i­cal tid­bit: Af­ter 99 ca­reer starts, Lar­son be­came the first grad­u­ate of NASCAR’s Drive for Di­ver­sity ini­tia­tive to win a Sprint Cup race when he held off Chase El­liott at Michi­gan on Sun­day.

NASCAR has worked hard to ex­pand its base, not just in the garage but in the stands. This may not be a game-changer, but it opens eyes that NASCAR’s reach can go be­yond the Good Ol’ Boy stereo­type.

“It was awe­some to fi­nally get that win and get the mon­key off our back and lock our­selves into the Chase,” said Lar­son, whose mother is of Ja­panese de­scent. “It was huge. Wish my first win would have come a cou­ple of years ago, but com­ing close so many times makes this one feel that much more spe­cial.”

It was a sen­ti­men­tal ride for other rea­sons. Lar­son got emo­tional dur­ing the fi­nal laps, think­ing about one of his best friends, Bryan Clau­son, who died Aug. 7 in a rac­ing ac­ci­dent.

Lar­son wore a spe­cial paint scheme on his hel­met honor­ing Clau­son at Bris­tol Mo­tor Speed­way the pre­vi­ous week­end.

“I guess you al­ways think about it, but def­i­nitely with us get­ting ready to win the race, things go through your mind and you re­ally start think­ing about Bryan, feel­ing like he’s there rid­ing with you, help­ing you out to get that win,” Lar­son said. “It was cool to go there and ‘park it’ like he would say and get the win for his fam­ily and fi­ancee. They’ve all been hurt­ing re­ally bad, but to give them some joy and hap­pi­ness is pretty cool.”

Per­haps there is more hap­pi­ness in the fu­ture. Lar­son has one of 16 lot­tery tick­ets into the Chase. And al­though he will be among the bot­tom-tier long shots, there are enough un­pre­dictable el­e­ments in play that he could emerge as one of the fi­nal four in Home­stead in Novem­ber.

He won the Xfin­ity Se­ries race there last Novem­ber, a bit­ter­sweet ride con­sid­er­ing the Cup side, where he fin­ished 19th in the stand­ings.

“If we can get into the fi­nal four, I feel we have a re­ally, re­ally good shot at win­ning the cham­pi­onship,” he said.

DY­LAN BUELL/GETTY IM­AGES

Dar­ling­ton (S.C.) Race­way Sun­day, 6 p.m. TV: Chs. 11, 4 Kyle Lar­son’s vic­tory Sun­day in Brook­lyn, Mich., made him the first win­ner from NASCAR’s Drive for Di­ver­sity pro­gram.

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