Lar­son poised to live up to early ex­pec­ta­tions

The Morning Call - - SPORTS - By Jenna Fryer

CHAR­LOTTE, N.C. — It is odd to clas­sify a vic­tory on a 1-mile con­crete oval in Delaware as the big­gest win of Kyle Lar­son’s ca­reer.

Maybe he is among those who count their great­est tri­umphs on dirt, in sprint cars, venues far away from NASCAR’s glitz and glam­our. But at this time of year, in the mid­dle of a long los­ing streak and just a year away from free agency, Lar­son’s vic­tory Sun­day at Dover In­ter­na­tional Speed­way was enor­mous for both driver and team.

Lar­son was not con­sid­ered a le­git­i­mate ti­tle con­tender when the play­offs be­gan. He wasn’t even the strong­est of the two Chip Ganassi Rac­ing en­trants, hav­ing been over­shad­owed al­most all sea­son by new team­mate Kurt Busch. Then Busch had a rocky open­ing round of the play­offs and was elim­i­nated when the field was trimmed from 16 to 12 a week ago.

Seven days later, Lar­son be­came the first driver locked into the third round — the re­ward for snap­ping a 75-race win­less skid — and sud­denly is in the cham­pi­onship con­ver­sa­tion.

“This is my best op­por­tu­nity to win the cham­pi­onship,” Lar­son said. “I’ve got to take advantage of that.”

Lar­son had nine top-10 fin­ishes, but this sea­son could have been con­sid­ered his worst in years. His num­bers are down in nearly ev­ery mean­ing­ful cat­e­gory — top-five and top-10 fin­ishes, laps led and av­er­age start and fin­ish — and he wasn’t a lock to even make the play­offs un­til the fi­nal month of the reg­u­lar sea­son.

He did score the $1 mil­lion pay­day with his win in May at the ex­hi­bi­tion All-Star race, but his suc­cess this year had been rel­e­gated to sprint cars, where Lar­son is idol­ized for his tal­ent and pas­sion for grass­roots rac­ing.

It’s why that los­ing streak didn’t seem so bad.

“I’ve won sprint car races this year, midget races, go-kart races — so yeah, it doesn’t feel like that long,” Lar­son said.

But it had been al­most two years and the pres­sure was mount­ing. Lar­son came to NASCAR billed as the next Jeff Gor­don or Tony Ste­wart, and while his po­ten­tial has come in flashes, the re­sults have not been con­sis­tent and ques­tions have swirled about his com­mit­ment to Cup rac­ing.

With his con­tract with Ganassi up at the end of next sea­son, it’s not nec­es­sar­ily the best time for team own­ers to won­der whether Lar­son would pre­fer to be dirt rac­ing but paid as an elite NASCAR driver. The Dover vic­tory now gives Lar­son the power to meet his NASCAR ex­pec­ta­tions.

He’s got his sights on Homestead­Mi­ami Speed­way, where the cham­pion will be crowned in Novem­ber. Lar­son has three top-five fin­ishes in six ca­reer starts at Homestead, where he has led laps in all but one ap­pear­ance and has the skills to at­tack the pro­gres­sive bank­ing on the 1 oval.

Lar­son has it pretty good with Ganassi, who al­lows him to com­pete in sprint car rac­ing while many team own­ers re­strict what their driv­ers can do in their free time. And Ganassi is the one who has backed Lar­son since his tran­si­tion into NASCAR in 2012. There is loy­alty be­tween the two, but it only goes so far when money is in­volved.

Ganassi took a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar hit in De­cem­ber when the FBI raided one of his pri­mary spon­sors and the pledged money for 2020 never came through. To jus­tify an ex­pected bid­ding war next sea­son, Ganassi needs cer­tainty that Lar­son can de­liver.

The team owner devel­oped Casey Mears and Jamie McMur­ray early in their ca­reers, only for both driv­ers to jump to big­ger teams after they’d proved com­pet­i­tive in the Cup Series. McMur­ray even­tu­ally re­turned to Ganassi, where he closed out his ca­reer last sea­son and won a Day­tona 500, but the or­ga­ni­za­tion has never had a ti­tle con­tender.

The clos­est was prob­a­bly Ganassi’s sec­ond sea­son in NASCAR, when Ster­ling Mar­lin led in points for most of the year be­fore a bro­ken bone in his neck ended his sea­son seven races early.

“It would be nice to get him that cham­pi­onship that he’s hon­estly prob­a­bly owed,” Lar­son said.

Lar­son may al­ready know what he’s do­ing in 2021, and it may or may not in­volve Ganassi, but he’s go­ing to con­trol the free-agent mar­ket next sea­son. In the mean­time, he’s got a real chance to de­liver for Ganassi and take a true step to­ward be­com­ing a NASCAR su­per­star.

CHRIS TROTMAN/GETTY

Kyle Lar­son cel­e­brates with a burnout in his No. 42 Clover Chevro­let after win­ning the Mon­ster En­ergy NASCAR Cup Series Dry­dene 400 at Dover In­ter­na­tional Speed­way on Sun­day. He is guar­an­teed a spot in the third round of the play­offs.

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