By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
PHOENIX – Kyle Larson has been the driver everyone’s been trying to beat in the NASCAR Cup Series all season.
After 35 hard fought and demanding races, it’ll come down to the 312-lap finale at Phoenix Raceway where Larson will look to cap off a dream year with a championship.
Not only is Larson determined to give it his all to win the title, he’ll also look to become the first man since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to win 10 races in a season.
The Californian will have a lot of friends and family at hand at the one-mile oval and should he accomplish NASCAR’s biggest prize, and it’ll at least be monumental for two reasons. On top of the fact the finale is on the West Coast, he’ll be the first Asian American champion. Something he personally takes pride on both.
“It would definitely mean a lot. I feel like if I could win, this is almost as close to home as it gets for me,” said Larson. “I’ve got a lot of friends coming, my family, my parents, my sister, my kids, my wife, a lot of my best friends are coming to the race, a lot of sponsors from my dirt side of things are going to be here.
“Personally, yes, it would mean even more I think to win it here. Yeah, too, for the Asian community, that would be something to be proud of. Yeah, it would be really neat.”
Nerves aren’t there for Larson despite not competing for a major championship in quite some time.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve truly, like, raced for a championship. I don’t really remember how I felt then. I won a Sprint car championship in 2010. I won the K&N championship in 2012. It’s been almost a decade since I’ve been in this position to win a championship,” said Larson.
“I feel like, though, if I was nervous then, I don’t feel nervous now. Maybe that’s just because of a lot more experience, confidence in the race team and stuff.”
A key ingredient to Larson’s success in his first season at Hendrick Motorsports has been the dynamic chemistry between him and crew chief Cliff Daniels.
The latter is no stranger of thriving for success as he was a part of Jimmie Johnson’s team for a number of years, including Johnson’s seventh and final title in 2016.
Larson has seen that out of Daniels just this season alone which surprised him.
“He’s a really intense person, crew chief, really competitive. But his leadership skills are really good,” Larson said of Daniels. “I feel like the way he leads our team, his communication, is amazing.
“He’s just great at what he does. I’m very fortunate to be together with him. Our relationship has gone even better than I thought it would before the season started.”
Since the current playoff format began in 2014, the champion has won the race each time. Larson believes to win the title, you have to be the first man taking the checkered flag. In this scenario, the trend says it’ll be a must-win situation.
Larson sees it both ways because as long as he beats his three title rivals (Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Martin Truex, Jr.), he’ll hoist the Bill France Trophy.
“It’s obviously not a must win, just the way that it is. You got to just beat the other three guys. Ever since they’ve gone to this format, you’ve had to win to win the championship,” Larson explained.
“I kind of think it is a must win. I definitely think the four of us will be the four at the front. I think the winner will be the champion, for sure.”
Back in March’s Instacart 500, Martin Truex, Jr. won the race while Larson finished seventh. Larson is excited to be back at Phoenix, hoping his performance is a complete 180.
“I didn’t execute a good race at all earlier this year. I felt like my car was capable of winning that race,” said Larson. “I’m excited to get back going and try to just execute a better race, hopefully to keep myself in position.”