Kyle Larson is one of the most even-keeled, happy-go-lucky drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – typically smiling, always willing to sign autographs and even popular with his competitors.
But Larson’s runner-up showing to Kyle Busch in Monday’s rain-delayed race finish at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, stoked some real competitive frustration in the fifth-year Cup driver. And even four days later, speaking with the media in advance of Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond (Va.) Raceway (6 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), it was apparent Larson still felt the sting of that near miss.
“Yeah, I was mad,” Larson said. “That’s as close as I’ve come to winning a Cup race at Bristol. I don’t want to compare Bristol to any other races because that seems to get me in trouble when I compare races to races. But, I want to win extremely bad at Bristol. So, yeah, that one stung probably more than any Cup win I can kind of think of at this point.
“Every single time I race at Bristol, I go head-to-head with Kyle [Busch]. Even though I might not win and run second to him every time or whatever, but throughout the majority of a race it’s always him and I nose to tail in lapped traffic, which is a lot of fun, but he seems to come out on the better end of it with wins and all that stuff. So yeah, it sucked.”
Larson led a race high 200 laps at Bristol – nearly twice as many as Busch (who led 117 laps) and the two exchanged the lead four times in the final 119 laps before Busch took the point for good with six laps remaining.
Larson has never won at the famed short track – a place he had prioritized and circled on the Cup schedule – and he put in such a top-shelf effort. As much of a nice-guy as Larson may be, he is still a fierce competitor and that one hurt. Deeply.
“I’d moved on shortly after because I was really mad when I got back to the bus and I texted Kyle about this, but the last thing I wanted to hear but the first thing I heard when I walked in the bus was, ‘Oh, did you get me some Skittles?’ said Larson, smiling at the request his three-year old son Owen had so innocently asked about. Skittles sponsored Busch’s winning car.
“So, I couldn’t help but laugh at that, so that wasn’t what I wanted to hear but it kind of lightened the mood, so it helps to get over it a little bit.”
Arriving at the three-quarter mile Richmond Raceway this week may help the process of getting over it. Larson won the Cup Series’ last race here in September. He started from the pole position (2014) in his first Cup start here and was runner-up in the 2016 race. His recent history in Richmond has certainly produced a lot of positive vibes.
“Typically this hasn’t been a good race track for me, but for whatever reason, the last time we were here we were about a top-three car all race long,” Larson said. “(Martin) Truex was really fast. But, I was a little bit lucky there at the end with a caution to beat him off pit road and get the win.
“I think that adds a little bit of confidence coming back here; but at the same time, I’ve struggled here in the past. I don’t know if I’ll be as good as I was last time, but I hope so. Even though I’ve struggled in the past I enjoy this track because it is different than what we typically go to.”
Eight races into the 2018 season, Larson has a pair of runner-up finishes (at Fontana, Calif. and Bristol, Tenn.) and a third-place at Las Vegas. He crashed out at Texas Motor Speedway but all-in-all is still ranked ninth in the Monster Energy Series points standings.
It’s proven to be a tough year for any driver not named Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch. Those two veterans have won five of the opening eight races and have four combined runner-up showings in the races they didn’t win.
Larson acknowledged the dominance of those two teams, Harvick driving a Ford and Busch driving a Toyota. But Larson also said he felt like his No. 42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and the other Chevrolets were getting their feet under them. Austin Dillon’s last lap victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 is the only race a Chevrolet has won so far.
“I still think Harvick is really fast,” Larson said sizing up his fellow frontrunners. “I think Kyle is really good at executing, which has helped him win the last couple of races and really run in the top 3 for as long as he has now. But yeah, as far as pure speed, I think the No. 4 [Harvick] has everybody covered.”
That’s not to say Larson doesn’t consider himself an absolute favorite at Richmond this week. He’s done everything but win this season and that first 2018 trophy feels inevitable. And perhaps the lesson learned in a tough defeat – like at Bristol last week – will make Larson’s next victory all the sweeter.
“I feel like speed-wise, we’re close to where we were at this point last year,” Larson said. “But I feel like other teams are better than where they were at this point last year. So maybe that’s why we’re back a couple of positions in the running order throughout the race.
“So yeah, I feel like we’ve gotten off to a really good start with the new body and all that. It’s early in the year and we’re going to continue to get better and better every week. We’ve continued to bring better race cars to the race track every week, so that’s good. So we’ve just got to keep working hard and I think we can get to the point of being the fastest car on the race track every weekend.
“I think we’ve proved last week that we were the fastest car. We didn’t get the win so we have to keep working on that and move it to other race tracks so we can be really fast.”
Larson led the final practice at Richmond Friday then secured the fifth place starting spot later in the day.