In advance of the Daytona 500 on February 18, the INDY’s in-house NASCAR aficionado, Mike V, has been previewing drivers he predicts will emerge as the primary contenders for this year’s cup championship. In the previous editions, he caught us up on the charismatic North Carolinian Ryan Blaney and one of racing’s greatest heels in Kyle Busch. This week, he dishes on one of NASCAR’s best wheelmen—and his choice to take the checkered flag at The Great American Race.
Kyle Larson has what it takes to be one of the best drivers in the history of NASCAR. He’s a unicorn hybrid: a patient strategist with an unparalleled understanding of the race car, combined with a brutal, bulldogging mentality that pushes him to the front of the pack as early and as often as possible.
When looking back over the course of NASCAR history, the amalgam of these talents is rare enough that the best comparison I can muster is some combination of two of racing’s greatest champions: Larson’s the best pure driver I’ve seen since Dale Earnhardt and the most coolheaded since Jimmie Johnson.
And much like the previously profiled Ryan Blaney, he’s one of the young drivers that NASCAR is hoping can weave a thread from past to present.
The difference between Larson and his new-era contemporaries like Blaney, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, and Daniel Suarez is that he has been able to go nose to nose with NASCAR veterans since day one. He suffered almost no learning curve, racking up nine top-ten finishes and eight top-fives in his first season in NASCAR’s premier series. Since then, he’s become a fixture on the pole and in the top five come race day.
That his 42 team didn’t make it to last year’s final round of four is either criminal or just a part of the new format, depending on whom you ask. Either way, his dominance over the course of last year’s regular season was second only to eventual cup champion Martin Truex Jr.
He’s as good as anyone when it comes to finding a track’s fastest groove, has shown talent, poise, and skill on short tracks, superspeedways, road courses, and mile-and-a-halfs, and is just as comfortable running up front all day or making his way through the pack. He can’t be counted out until the checkers fall or his car is wrecked. As long as the 42 is running, Kyle Larson has a fighting chance to win the race.
I predict Larson will win at least five races this season, starting with the opening weekend, when he takes home his first Daytona 500 victory.
He’ll be a handful in the final four as well, as few drivers know the fastest way around Homestead-Miami better than Kyle Larson. In his four seasons as a full-time driver in the sport’s most elite series, Larson has finished Homestead lower than fifth only once.
He easily could have won last year’s final race but displayed veteran class when he laid off and let Kyle Busch and Truex Jr. race for the cup. He hugs the wall at Homestead; his precision at the track and commitment to its upper groove is almost mechanical. Once you get over the fear that he’ll tap the wall and realize that he is in absolute control of the 42 machine, you’ll find it hard to fathom that he’s ever lost there.
The best hope for the other drivers racing for a cup championship come November is that, like in 2017, Kyle Larson gets bounced from the playoffs before the final race and isn’t racing for it all at Homestead.
Unfortunately for them, I don’t think there’s any way that happens.