If the right attitude can translate into a break-through trophy then Kyle Larson should be ready to gulp his share of fine Northern California wine straight from the winner’s oversized chalice Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.
Larson has celebrated there before – dominating the 2014 NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race, leading every single lap in his first high profile NASCAR event at the scenic 11-turn road course. And he is the defending Busch Pole sitter for Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
And while the versatile racer is as well-known for his dirt-track roots and prowess as his NASCAR rise to fame and popularity, the 25-year-old concedes he sure does love a road course challenge too. Especially when it’s essentially the Elk Grove, Californian’s “home track” – the very place he was famously photographed wearing a Jeff Gordon driver’s suit attending the summer NASCAR race as a young boy.
“I think it’s a lot of fun,’’ Larson said of road course racing. “It’s fun to get to do something totally different than what I ever grew up racing. A pavement oval is totally different than what I grew up doing, but a road course is way opposite.
“I enjoy it. I feel like I get better and better at it. To me, I feel like racing a stock car on a road course is more similar to a sprint car even because you can feel the suspension working more than you can on an oval. So, there are aspects of it that my background benefits to this more so than a normal oval race. I enjoy it. This is my home track so I get to see a lot of friends and family and hangout with people that I don’t get to see very often too.
“I enjoy this weekend a lot.”
It’s the first time in two years that Larson will be winless on the season as he arrives back home in Northern California. He visited Victory Lane twice last year before he arrived in Sonoma. But Larson has absolutely been a bright spot for his Chevrolet Camaro brand and is the highest ranking Chevy driver (10th) in the points standings right now.
He has four top-10 finishes in the last five races heading to Sonoma and he has three runner-up showings on the season (at Fontana, Calif., Bristol, Tenn. and Pocono, Pa.). Overall, he has nine top-10 efforts through the opening 15 races.
“I feel like our speed has been there all year really,’’ said Larson, who drivers the No. 42 Camaro for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“I feel like speed wise we have been about the same as we were last year. I think you can look at Stewart-Haas, (they are) quite a bit better than they were last year. I feel like compared to the Gibbs cars we are kind of right where we were to end the season with them last year, so we were pretty good there, so no, I don’t feel like our team is frustrated at all.
“I think we look at it as there is a lot of room to gain which is nice because I feel like we are already competitive and if we get any bit better we will be in a good spot. So, I think our team is definitely optimistic.”
Following his dramatic win in the K&N Pro Series West four years ago, Larson has been especially eager to triumph at the Cup level on Sonoma’s 1.990-mile course. He has never started the race from a position lower than fifth. And the pole position and nine laps led last year were a career highlight for him here. His four finishes, however, have been more disappointing. He’s had essentially twin bills – two times he’s been 15th and he bookended those with a finish of 28th in his first race and a 25th-place showing last summer.
“Always qualify well here,’’ Larson said, with a grin. “I think we have the track record maybe from ’14 or ’15, so that is pretty cool. The pole here last year was neat.
“I would like to race well here soon. I don’t know what it is about the race, but I always seem to struggle a little bit. Hopefully, this year is a little bit different and can do a good job and get our team up front.”