May 08, 2022:  at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, South Carolina. (HHP/Chris Owens)
(HHP/Chris Owens)

Kyle Larson Heads To Kansas Seeking Return To Title Pace

If you look at just three stats, Kyle Larson is doing alright through 12 races in the NASCAR Cup season.

Following Sunday’s Goodyear 400 at Darlington (S.C) Raceway, the Hendrick Motorsports driver has five top five-finishes and six top 10s.

He also has one win.

Those are the exact same numbers he had through 12 races last year on his way to winning 10 races and his first Cup championship.

But the farther you look down Larson’s stat line after Darlington, it’s clear Larson isn’t enjoying the same success as he had in 2021.

When the engine on Larson’s No. 5 Chevrolet expired Sunday after just 112 laps, it delivered the team its fourth DNF of the season and the second for a bad engine (Phoenix). The other two were for crashes in the Daytona 500 and at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Through 12 races in 2021, Larson only had one DNF (engine, Talladega) and had two all season.

Larson, who was a favorite to win at Darlington, led 30 around the 1.3-mile track before he retired. So far, he’s led 167 laps in 2022. That’s compared to the 510 laps he totaled through 12 races last year.

But the brunt of those laps came at Las Vegas, Atlanta and Kansas Speedway, where the high downforce, low horsepower package was used last year. With that package, Larson won four of his 10 races.

Darlington was also the 12th race of 2021 season. It was there that Larson’s championship form began to really manifest, as he finished second to start a six-race stretch of top-two finishes, including three wins.

But that’s not how Larson is exiting Darlington.

“We were definitely running stronger and contending more for wins at this point in the year last year,” Larson said last weekend. “I still feel like we need to get better, but I do feel like we’re not far from being really good. Just have to continue to work hard and keep trying to be consistent. I had a little bit of inconsistency I feel like on my part a couple months ago. Now, we seem to be rolling OK. I think my last three finishes (before Darlington) were a fourth, a fourth and a sixth. So, that’s been good. We would like to get more stage points and things like that. We’re way closer to the points lead than we were at this point last year, too. I guess you can spin it a couple of different ways to find some positives about it.”

Larson said that the day before the Darlington race, when he was eighth in the standings. He’s now ninth. At this point last year he was sixth in the standings.

The sky isn’t falling on the No. 5 team, but where it sits is eyebrow raising compared to his championship run.

The next track up for the Cup Series is Kansas Speedway. In the two races at the 1.5-mile track last year, Larson led 262 combined laps and won the fall race.

“We had success there last year, but this weekend is another track we are visiting for the first time with the Next Gen car so there is still a lot to learn,” crew chief Cliff Daniels said in a media release. “Kansas is just one of those tracks where you have to respect the track because it can draw you into thinking it’s pretty straightforward, but the lanes can change a lot throughout the race. Everybody thinks you can run up top, then everybody does and it’ll fall off, so you have to be good enough to move down the track.

“And right as you think the strategy will be simple, a caution will come out and change everything you’re doing. You really have to be on your game in the moment and respect the track and the race. Past success always gives you confidence, but it’s still the new car at a track we haven’t competed on with it yet.”

So far this season, in the one non-downforce race at a 1.5-mile track, Larson finished second (Las Vegas).

“I think (Tyler) Reddick did a test at Kansas and I remember him tweeting something about how he just ran right next to the wall the whole time,” Larson said. “So, I would imagine it’s pretty easy to run next to the wall. I think it may be less of a multi-groove track. We’ll see.

“I love Kansas. It’s definitely one of my favorite tracks. It does have multiple lanes, typically. If that top lane gets going really fast, it does make it hard to pass. I hope we can run the bottom, middle and things like that. I know Reddick will be against the fence anyways (laughs).”