Larson makes a mark
Breakthrough win also a victory for diversity initiative
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.
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.