By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
Going into Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville, it looked like Kyle Larson was in the middle of a lost season. Through the first five races of the season, Larson had just one top-10 finish and sat 24th in the championship standings.
There wasn’t much reason for optimism heading into this week’s race either, as Larson had struggled through four previous starts at the half-mile paper clip track. His best finish at the shortest and oldest track in NASCAR was 19th in the fall of 2015.
Larson rolled off of the grid Sunday from the 17th position, right around where Jimmie Johnson started, which according to Larson was key to what turned into a great day.
“I spent a lot of time behind Jimmie Johnson and I felt like I just followed his track there and got a lot better throughout the race,” Larson said after the race.
By a quarter of the way into the race, Larson stayed latched to the back of Johnson’s No. 48 car, and as a result he cracked the top-10. Larson would remain a mainstay there for the remainder of the day.
When the caution came out for the final time on lap 484, Larson and his crew chief opted to get just two tires on pit road, while the top three stayed out, and many others took four tires. As a result, Larson found himself in seventh position going into the last restart with 11 laps to go, but he wanted more.
Three laps after the restart Larson got by Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth to move his No. 42 car into the fifth spot. He then set sail to Brian Vickers for the fourth spot, which he grabbed with seven laps to go. With four laps to go Larson would skillfully get around Austin Dillon for third. Larson’s rally would run out of steam here, but he would hang on to finish third.
An elated Larson talked about his impressive day, and eluded that a win at Martinsville win may be in his future.
“We had a really good Target Chevy. It was really fun this whole weekend to be competitive every time I was on the race track,” Larson explained. “Normally, I’m very bad here and to finish top-three feels like a win for me. Never would I have thought that I’d get a top-three here and now I can kind of see a [Grandfather] clock maybe in my future. I had a lot of fun today. We were running in the top-five and top-seven the whole race.”
This marks Larson’s first top-five finish of 2016, and you could just feel a weight being lifted off his shoulders in his post-race interview. Perhaps now the Chip Ganassi Racing team can begin to build some momentum, and Larson can close in on his first career win.
Image; Sean Gardner/ Getty Images for NASCAR