By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
I think it’s safe to say that Kyle Larson is primed for a great run in this year’s Chase.
One week ago in Michigan, Larson captured his first-career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory in his 99th start. Fast forward to Labor Day weekend, Larson, who led 45 laps on the night, was in the thick of the hunt for the win again at Darlington Raceway in the prestigious Bojangle’s Southern 500.
Larson rolled off the grid from the 16th-starting position, after the field was set by the rule book after horrendous weather from Tropical Storm Hermine wiped out all track activity on Friday.
When the race began, weather wasn’t a factor, as Larson began to knife his way through the field. By lap 20, Larson had cracked the top-10. It was a great start, but then adversity set in for Larson and his team. His No. 42 Throwback Target Chevrolet SS went to the tight side on throttle, and his team had some sluggish efforts on pit road. As a result Larson slipped back to the 14th position.
At lap 163, Crew Chief Chad Johnston finally began to cure the handling issues under a green flag pit sequence, and Larson began to climb back through the field.
At the halfway point of the race, Larson moved into the 11th position, and just a few laps later he would work back inside the top-10 — where he would stay the remainder of the evening.
On a lap 281 pit stop, Larson’s crew got the job done and Larson pulled out of pit road with four fresh tires and the second position. On the ensuing restart, Larson would cruise to the lead, and for a bit it looked like he would be able to go on to his second win in as many weeks.
After pacing the field for 45 laps, Larson was shuffled to fourth after varying pit strategies among the front runners jumbled the running order over the final few caution periods. From here on out Larson tried to reel in Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick, but he couldn’t quite match the speed of those two drivers down the stretch. Larson would settle for an impressive third-place finish.
After the race, a gassed Larson talked about his night.
“It was long. My spotter said we were halfway and I was like ‘are you kidding me we still have however many to go?’ But it was a good night,” Larson said. “We had to fight pretty hard to get to the top four or five. Our pit stops weren’t great there in the beginning, but they rebounded and we had some good stops there at the end to maintain. The last probably five or six stops I thought were pretty good. We were able to get past Denny (Hamlin) and get to the lead and lead some laps.
“We had a really good car out front. In traffic, I was just too tight for a little while and as we went I would get too loose on exit, but I found some lines that worked for me and that helped, but a tough race. It is good to come back after the win last week and finish third. I’m really happy with everybody on this Target team for working so hard and digging deep there throughout the race to get us in position.”
Larson, who just three races ago looked to be the odd man out in the championship hunt, is hitting his stride just before the Chase begins. In the last six races, Larson has finished sixth-or-better in four of the races and he was running solidly in the top-five at Watkins Glen before being booted by AJ Allmendinger in the final turn.
After the speed his Chip Ganassi Racing Team has shown lately, Larson feels ready to contend for a championship in his third season.
“all in all, it was good to be a contender two weeks in a row. I thought maybe there was some things that could have gone our way to maybe get the win, but we’ll still take a third, build on our momentum leading up to the Chase, and hopefully have a good first round of that,” Larson said.