NASCAR’s Sprint Cup season will reach its midway point when the checkered flag falls Saturday night for the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
While the anticipation builds for this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, Kyle Larson has made a convincing argument to be the Sprint Cup’s rookie of the year.
If his season is any indication, his career is likely to more resemble that of past winners Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhart Sr. than Woodrow “Woodie” Wilson, whose accomplishments in NASCAR never matched his rookie-of-the-year season in 1961.
Three top-five finishes and seven top 10s in Chip Ganassi’s No. 42 Chevrolet have made Larson not only the top rookie thus far, but a player in the Chase as well.
All that’s missing is a first victory.
“It would mean a lot” to win at the famed NASCAR venue, Larson said. “I think I have a good chance of winning as well as everybody else because the field seems to be really close when we go to superspeedways.
“Everybody’s confidence will be up, the racing will be intense, and just got to stay out of trouble.”
Staying out of trouble has been an issue. Like a precocious youngster, Larson has found his share of trouble.
Larson has one of the five worst per-race crash frequencies after a blown tire sent him into the wall and knocked him out of last week’s race at the Kentucky Speedway.
The crash, the most recent of seven in the season’s first 17 races, followed a 28th-place finish the week before at Sonoma.
The finishes dropped him to 14th in the Chase standings, tied in points with Greg Biffle, both one point in front of Clint Bowyer, who holds the last spot in the Chase. Kasey Kahne sits in 17th, nine points back of Larson and Biffle.
None of that will matter if he picks up a victory. He’ll be in the Chase under the circuit’s new format.
The past two weeks have set up a critical juncture at Daytona, where nothing is predictable, and next week at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he’s never raced in Cup.
“It would have been nice to have a solid weekend last week at Kentucky and kind of go to Daytona and be like, ‘Oh, we could have a good race here or a bad race and it wouldn’t affect us a whole lot.’
“But now that we’ve had two bad races in a row where I’m close to being back to the 16th spot in points, it definitely makes you think about it and approach the race weekend a little bit differently.”
Just shy of his 24th birthday, Larson entered life in Sprint Cup after successful seasons in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and the Nationwide Series, winning rookie of the year awards in both.
“We’ve just got to stay consistent and put ourselves in position like we have all year,” Larson said. “If we do win a race, that would be awesome.
“Just got to make sure we finish every race and can’t have weekends like we’ve had the last couple races. If we do get in the Chase, too, we’re well capable enough to make it on each round to the final round at Homestead.”
Double Dale Jr.? Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns to Daytona International Speedway looking for a second victory this season at the acclaimed NASCAR track, a rare feat in the history of the circuit. Jimmie Johnson last year was the first double winner at Daytona in more than 30 years. Only five drivers have won the Daytona 500 and the July race:
Smokin’? The Coke Zero 400 could be just what Tony Stewart needs to make his first appearance in Victory Lane this year. The July night race has been good to Stewart, who has won it four times, including the memorable fence climb. His last two finishes in the July race? First and second.
Triple Crown watch: Will Power enters atop the points standings despite his first finish out of the top 10 (11th) last week at the Grand Prix of Houston. This week drivers will be racing for big points at the Pocono IndyCar 500, with the distance increased 100 miles to match the Indianapolis 500 and the season finale at the Auto Club Speedway. This year’s Triple Crown races offer double points.
97.1 Driver rating of Kyle Busch at Daytona, where he has one victory and five top-five and six top-10 finishes. His 84 fastest laps run are the third-most at the track.
“It’s a huge swing and it can happen that easily, especially at a double-points weekend like Pocono. If one of your rivals has a bad day and you have a good one, all of the sudden you’re right back on top of it. Anything can happen very fast. I saw that firsthand coming off Indy. Pocono will carry a lot of weight.” — Ryan Hunter-Reay