CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Blog by Race Chaser Online Correspondent Marshall Gabell – Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images North America photo – 2012 NASCAR K&N East Pro Series champion Kyle Larson has flourished in his rookie campaign in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and with three races remaining before the Chase Grid is been set he’s aiming to be a candidate in the championship battle – a feat that would make him the first rookie since Denny Hamlin (in 2006) to make the Chase.
Larson entered Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway in February with four previous Sprint Cup Series appearances and a whimsical attitude as he anticipated to succeed at the most prestigious level in motorsports.
‘Young Money’ then faced reality.
He left Daytona Beach with a wrecked race car and his expectations tattered and burned in the wake of his third unfinished race through five career starts.
While Larson was displeased with the result he showed an uncommon character that few veterans in the sport possess, much less rookies.
He proved that he was capable of not dwelling upon the past but merely looking towards the future.
With that motivation in mind Larson moved onward to three tracks he took to during his Nationwide Series campaign last season – Phoenix International Raceway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway.
Those three races would then become a test; a test to see how Larson could preform despite being troubled over his previous performance(s).
He would pass the exam with flying colors.
Finishing 20th at Phoenix, 19th at Las Vegas and 10th at Bristol it became easy to see that Larson had succeeded with acceptable finishes in that trio of races.
Larson then received extra credit on the quiz at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana the following week.
Just 24 hours after winning his first-career NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Fontana, Larson shot back into contention during the Sprint Cup event and ended up dueling with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch on a late-race restart before finishing a career-best second.
It was subsequently evident that Larson had removed his flawed performance at Daytona and started looking towards an achievable and a reasonable endeavor – a Chase berth.
18 races after his Fontana achievement the California Kid is a noted Chase hopeful alongside veteran drivers Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne. However, his hopes appear to be diminishing.
Larson visited Michigan International Speedway last weekend with the intent of igniting his fire towards a spot in the championship battle, a task that appeared manageable until Lap 94.
While battling inside the top-10 Larson’s No. 42 popped a right front tire and his machine went skidding into the outside barrier with substantial damage and proceeded to catch fire, an injury that his crew was unable to fix.
Larson would finish 43rd and would tumble all the way to 24 points behind Greg Biffle (who is currently in the final transfer spot for winless drivers to advance to the Chase) forcing his Chip Ganassi Racing team to hit the go switch heading into the final three races before the Chase is finalized.
“It’s just a shame,” Larson said after his eighth career unfinished race. “We were up there in the points battle, so we have to work even harder now to try and get in the Chase.”
While it’s obvious he’ll have to overcome odds to make the Chase, Larson has already shown the poise necessary to write his name next to Hamlin’s in the record book. He will have to duplicate the mentality he displayed post Daytona to earn himself a spot on the Chase Gird, something that won’t be a walk in the park.
Keep in mind, there is one more thing that can be done to clinch a Chase berth: win a race. With how tense the competition has become that’s easier said then done — but Larson is heading to arguably his best track on the circuit, a track where he finished second to Kyle Busch in his first-ever Nationwide race there a year ago.
So, it’s clear cut. Larson must begin a consistent streak in these final three races at Thunder Valley (Bristol), Atlanta Motor Speedway and Richmond International Speedway to keep alive his championship hopes.
He’ll get his first chance to rebound from the upsetting Michigan running this Saturday when he returns to the track that was also site of his first-career Sprint Cup top-10 finish.
And my gut tells me that when the Irwin Tools Night Race reaches it’s scheduled distance on Saturday night; Bristol should also become the site of his initial step towards a Chase berth.