Kyle Larson doesn’t mind playing the role of the playoff underdog heading into Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
At least as an underdog, Larson still has a chance at his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title.
That’s all he wants.
“This our organization’s [Chip Ganassi Racing] first time in the round of eight,” Larson said. “I think we’re definitely an underdog. At the same time, we know we can do it. We just have to perform like we need to. Everyone on this team knows we can. I wouldn’t be surprised if we make the Final Four.”
Sunday’s race may be Larson’s best chance to lock himself into a championship spot, and it will be at a TMS track with which Larson has a checkered past.
The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet has three top-five finishes and four top-10 finishes at TMS in 12 starts. That’s the good news. The bad news is that in the past four races, Larson has been involved in accidents. Since the 2017 repave at the 1 ½-mile quadoval he’s had two top fives and three wrecks.
While a stretch of awesome or awful finishes could make some drivers leery heading into Sunday, Larson isn’t one of them.
“Texas is a good track for us,” said Larson, who was relegated to 39th at TMS in April after a crash. “We haven’t had good finishes there lately, but I always feel good leading into Texas. These are the tracks where our team excels. Hopefully we can challenge for a win. Our car is going to be good this weekend. We have to execute and do a good job.”
Larson, 27, has shown that speed this weekend already. He was 13th fastest in Friday’s first practice and 16th fastest in the final practice. He qualified 13th for the race. Kevin Harvick will start Sunday’s race from the pole, and Erik Jones will start outside of Harvick.
Larson kept himself in contention for the final four with a ninth-place finish last weekend at Martinsville, which is one of his worst tracks. He wasn’t a contender for the win, but he didn’t lose sight of the championship hopefuls. He’s seventh in points and locked himself into the Round of Eight by winning his first race of the season at Dover.
Larson isn’t the only one confident that he can race himself into championship contention.
“I think Kyle brings a personal style to the sport that a lot of people maybe don’t understand at first,” team owner Chip Ganassi said. “He doesn’t really push any more than he has to. It’s been a measured thing throughout the year. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him, and he knows what he has to do the next couple of weeks. We look forward to it.”
The gap between Larson and the top four may seem like a big one, but Larson doesn’t feel like he has to change his racing style at TMS or Phoenix, which is the final race before the championship cutoff.
“Being 24 points out with two races it’s a pretty big gap,” he said. “If I wasn’t to win one of these next two races, I’d have be really good all race long, running in the top three. We’re closed to being in a must-win situation. We’d need a few guys ahead of me to run into issues.”
TMS president Eddie Gossage is eager to see what Larson can do Sunday.
“He’s fought his way into the playoffs,” Gossage said. “He didn’t ease his way into the round of eight. We just want to see Kyle achieve the level of success to match his abilities. It would be great to see Kyle race himself into the championship four. He has tons of potential.”
Larson has shown that throughout his career. He was the Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year in 2013 and was the same in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2014. He had a four-win season in 2017 and has made the playoffs four straight years, his best finish being eighth in 2017.
This year is shaping up to be his best, and Sunday’s race could add another chapter.
“We’ve been really good for the last few months especially,” Larson said. “We got that win a few weeks ago at Dover. We feel like we’ve been contenders. Our car continues to get better. Our team continues to get better. We’ve put ourselves in a spot to contend for a championship. Hopefully we can win one of these next two and get there.”