If you’re Kyle Larson and you’ve had a remarkable season as a rookie driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and have come oh so close to inclusion in the Chase but failed to make the field, how do you get over your disappointment?
By taking it out on the competition.
After six races of the Chase, Larson has come close to winning twice. Fortunately for the drivers in the Chase field, even if he continues to outperform them, Larson cannot win the title.
Larson's finishes during the Chase? Try an impressive third, second, sixth, second, sixth and 17th. About that last one: It was at Talladega, a race which is always a crapshoot. His finish there doesn’t reflect how well Larson’s No. 42 kept up with the leaders for much of the race.
If Larson had been in the Chase, he would have easily moved past the first two rounds.
It has been a memorable season for the young man from California. And it’s not over yet.
When NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi plucked Larson from obscurity and then announced that he was going to have the (then) 21-year-old Californian replace former F1 and Indy Car star Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet, more than a few eyebrows were raised in the racing world.
At the time, Ganassi may have been rolling the dice, but Larson apparently knew that he belonged in the seat. And now, the rest of us, including the folks at AutoRacingDaily.com, know it too.
Having grown up racing open-wheel sprint cars, Larson had aspirations of racing in the big leagues. For a kid growing up on the West Coast that meant the World of Outlaws, a national touring series of high-powered, winged sprint cars.
He also thought about NASCAR.
“I always wanted to be in NASCAR,” Larson told Jon Gunn of NASCAR.com. “But I knew that if I didn’t make it in Cup, I’d be satisfied running in the World of Outlaws.”
He might have been racing with the WoO at Port Royal Speedway in Pennsylvania this weekend instead of Martinsville Speedway.
The remaining eight drivers in the 2014 Chase field might wish he were racing there. That’s because Larson has been eating their lunch since the Chase started nearly seven weeks ago in Chicago.
In that opening round, Larson (who finished third) joined his teammate Jamie McMurray (ninth) as the only non-Chase drivers finishing in the top 10.
The next week at Loudon, after giving eventual race-winner Joey Logano everything he could handle in the closing laps of the Sylvania 300, Larson settled for the runner-up spot. It was something he’d not done since March at Fontana.
“Happy about the finish,” he told the media in a post-race press conference at Loudon. “Hopefully someday soon I'll get one spot better. Like I said last week, all these coming close, finishing second or third, is going to make that win feel really special.”
At Dover, he struggled with a difficult race car, yet finished sixth. Then came the 1.5-mile track at Kansas, the kind of track where Larson felt that he did his best driving, as he told a NASCAR teleconference afterward.
Larson found himself living through deja vu: In position to make a challenge for the win against Logano, he would have to settle for runner-up once again.
At Charlotte, Larson was poised to make another run at a breakthrough first Cup win but late in the race made a mistake that cost him dearly.
“I was able to get back to second and then got into the wall in 3 and 4 chasing down the 11, and messed up the aerodynamics and was really tight,” Larson said in the post-race press conference. “After that I just kind of held on, and I was lucky with that green-white-checkered (finish).”
Then, as if by fate, it was his nemesis Logano who helped him to another top-10 finish.
“We restarted on the outside and I was able to follow the 22 (Logano) up around the top to get to sixth.”
Larson’s scorecard after Charlotte read, “five top-10s in six races.” The last time a non-Chase driver did this well in the Chase was in 2006, when Tony Stewart missed the field and went on to win three of the 10 Chase races.
One might think Larson is out for some kind of revenge after not being invited to the postseason party. Who could blame him? In spite of a rookie season that was outstanding by any standard, with six top-fives, 12 top-10s and two poles, Larson went winless and without an automatic ticket to the postseason.
“Yeah, it is a little bit frustrating to come that close and not get wins, but it's also nice to see yourself running in the top three with everybody that's in the Cup field,” Larson told a NASCAR teleconference earlier this month. “It's amazingly tough. It's really exciting but a little bit frustrating at the same time.”
His motivation during these final 10 races of the season is simple: to get that elusive first win. He’s not greedy. One will suffice.
“I think any mile-and-a-half that's left in the schedule, so Charlotte, Texas or Homestead probably are the three where I'll have the best shot,” he said during the teleconference. “I hope I can get a win at any of these next coming tracks, but I'd say those are the highest chances for me to win. I'll go into those races with extra confidence and hopefully get it done. Hopefully I can close one of these races out.”
The final chapter to this storybook season has yet to be written. There are still four more races, four more chances at the elusive win. Four more chances to spoil the Chase party, even though that’s not what motives him.
“I think it's been a good rookie year for me,” Larson said in the post-race press conference at Charlotte two weeks ago. “I feel like I've definitely gotten better throughout the year and been close to a couple wins."
With any luck, Larson will get that first Cup win before the season finale. It would be a shame to have that first one be lost in all the hoopla surrounding the championship.
“Aside from missing the Chase, I think it's been about as good a rookie year as you can get without winning a race,” Larson said in Charlotte.
Very nicely understated.
Even if a driver wins every race in the Chase, there is no such thing as "winning the Chase." Theoretically, a driver can go winless throughout the Chase and then win or finish better than the other three drivers in the season finale en route to the title. Of course, we all hope things don’t turn out that way.
But if there was such a thing as winning the Chase, Kyle Larson has the field covered. And he just might pull that elusive rabbit out of the hat before it’s all over.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
On Twitter: @BobMargolis