NASCAR at Dover: Lessons learned – Larson on fast track to top

Kyle Larson at Dover International Speedway on race day in June. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Four victories so far in a breakout Monster Energy Series 2017 season speak volumes about Kyle Larson’s abilities behind the wheel of a race car.

However, it’s the lessons he has learned from an unbelievable eight second-place finishes this year that might turn out to be even more important down the road, including in Sunday’s Apache Warrior 400 presented by Lucas Oil at Dover International Speedway.

In the race at Dover last June, Larson went to school under professor Jimmie Johnson.

While Larson jumped out to the lead last spring at Dover, leading the field for 241 of the races’ eventual 406 laps, it was Johnson who celebrated his unprecedented 11th career win at the Monster Mile when the checkered flag waved.

Larson was in position to go to Victory Lane for the first time at Dover in the spring, leading the race by a wide margin over second-place Johnson.

However, a caution flag waved with four laps to go, which put Larson in the position of having to fend off the field, including seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson, on the final restart.

Larson was unable to clear the charging Johnson on the final restart and he lost the lead.

He tried to track Johnson down during the two-lap overtime finish but was running second when race ended for a multi-car crash on the backstretch after the leaders passed the overtime restart line, ending the race.

“Jimmie (Johnson) is the best of our time, probably the best of all time,” Larson said after that race. “He just has obviously a lot more experience than I do out on the front row late in races and executed a lot better than I did.

“I’ve got to get better at that and maybe get some more wins.”

Since then, Larson has flawlessly executed late-race restarts at both Michigan Speedway and Richmond International Raceway and emerged the winner. Lesson learned.

While Johnson, Martin Truex Jr. – the defending Dover fall race winner – and Kyle Busch may enter Sunday’s race as the prohibitive favorites, Larson certainly isn’t far behind them.

Plus, he has virtually no pressure as Dover hosts the first elimination race of the Monster Energy Series Playoffs.

Truex and Kyle Busch – by virtue of their wins in the first two playoff races – are already in the Round of 12 while Larson and Brad Keselowski have also advanced based on points.

Larson, a 25-year-old driver from Elk Grove, California, doesn’t mind where he’s at right now, even as the Toyota teams of Truex and Busch appear to be the cream of the crop.

“It’s cool to be the next best, I would say, to Toyota right now, or really the 78 car,” Larson said, referring to Truex. “So we’ve just got to work hard and get to where they’re at. Toyota and (Toyota Racing Development), they’ve done a really good job, and we all have some catching up to do.”

Dover’s high-banked, one-mile oval speedway may be just the place for Larson to do that catching up.

After all, he has finished in second place in two of the last three races at Dover and has finished among the top 10 drivers in five of his seven career races at the track.

“To me, he’s the best talent out there, and if we can put him in position, I think you’re going to get (a winning) outcome 99 percent of the time,” said Chad Johnston, Larson’s crew chief. “The thing for us is just to give him a car that’s fast enough that he can go out there and do what we all know that he can do.”

One thing is for sure, if it has wheels on it, Larson has probably raced it. He’s especially skilled when it comes to wheeling sprint cars around dirt tracks throughout the country.

Adjusting to stock cars has not been easy, he said.

“This is different, and I’ve had to learn a lot,” said Larson. “I feel like I’ve definitely gotten better at it.

“(NASCAR) is really, really slow, heavy braking, off the throttle a lot, taking care of your tires, where sprint car on a quarter-mile (track) you’re still wide open a lot of times, depending on how the track is.”

When it comes to racing, Larson is built in the Tony Stewart-mold, except maybe when it comes to Stewart’s legendary temper.

Larson feels like the more he can race, the better driver he will be.

“I think any time I get to race any type of car, whether it be a go-kart or a sprint car, any time I’m getting laps, I feel like it’s helping me be a better race car driver,” he said, “and especially when I can get in that stuff and win, it helps my confidence when I get into the Cup car.”

Chip Ganassi, Larson’s car owner, can see the day when the driver will approach him about driving in the Indianapolis 500.

That’s fine with him, for now.

“The thing when you’re a team owner in any sport, it’s easy to break your star athlete … it’s easy to break them and slow them down,” Ganassi said. “It’s a lot harder to speed them up. I just don’t want to do something that’s going to slow him down, you know.”

For now, Larson is one of the fresh faces of a new NASCAR.

“I think it’s exciting times,” Larson said. “I think a lot of fans right now are kind of sad that we’re losing (Dale Earnhardt) Junior (to retirement) and some other veterans and stuff that are out of rides right now.

“But I think it’s a great opportunity for our sport to take advantage of that and build on it … I feel like I’m in a great position to kind of lead the way right now maybe just because I have a couple more wins than some of them (younger drivers).”

He just might have one more victory when the checkered flag waves on Sunday at Dover.

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