back-to-back? larson looks to defend crown

As the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Darlington (S.C.) Raceway to begin the playoffs this weekend, nobody has a bigger target on their back than Kyle Larson.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver kicked off his championship run at Darlington last year, taking a nail-biting second-place finish behind Denny Hamlin at The Track Too Tough To Tame.

However, it’s a different story this time around for the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet.

Last season, Larson had a comfortable 52-point advantage to begin the playoffs, after scoring the regular season championship and racking up five victories during the first 26 races.

This time around, Larson slots in fourth on the playoff grid, 12 points above the cutline.

Larson isn’t concerned about the smaller cushion, knowing the first round of tracks are favorable to him.

back-to-back? larson looks to defend crown

Larson earned five wins during the playoffs last season. (HHP/Chris Owens)

“I haven’t put much thought into it,” Larson said. “Obviously, when you look at the points, I think last year we had 40-something (52) as we headed into the playoffs. Where this year, I think we only have 19 (12). It already adds a little bit more pressure on each race, knowing that you need to go get stage points, stage wins, race wins, all that to help out your postseason. This first round sets up really nicely for us and our team. Three really great tracks for us (Darlington, Kansas Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway).

“So, I think it’s a good opportunity for us to have a good few showings, get some playoff points and try and put ourselves in a better spot as we approach the next couple rounds.”

Specifically with Darlington, Larson believes the 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval suits his driving style well. He has seven top-10 finishes in nine Cup Series starts at the track.

“I think most of the time, just all the races I’ve had there have been really good. Maybe if I had some bad results, it’s because I got into the wall or something like that,” Larson said. “Before getting into the wall, I always remember being competitive and having fun and running up front. (I) have yet to get a win there, but I feel like it’s probably in my top-three, four for best tracks on the circuit.

“As far as average running position throughout the race, stuff like that, it seems to just fit my style. It’s just really technical. You have to move your line around a little bit, be patient, it’s just fun. I really enjoy it. It’s slick, it gets hot, it’s just a very demanding race track. I think the more demanding, sometimes it seems to be better suited for me. So, hopefully, this weekend we can go there and have a really good run and finally crack out a win there.”

Prior to Larson’s championship run in 2021, his playoff hopes were dashed in the round of eight in 2017 and ’19. However, the disappointment of not advancing in seasons past, only helps fuel the 30-year-old’s learning process.

Larson believes his previous experience in those tight points battles in the playoffs will benefit him more this post-season, as he looks to advance each round without much of a points buffer.

back-to-back? larson looks to defend crown

Larson celebrates his win at Watkins Glen this season. (HHP/Andrew Coppley)

“Last year, not often I feel like that a driver has that many points,” Larson said. “I know (Kevin) Harvick and them have done it in the past. Where you have a lot of points and you can rely on those points and not go into each race with some stress of crashing or having something bad happen, or if it does, you’re still not in terrible shape.

“I think the second round of last year we had a bad Talladega (Ala.), and then we had the alternator issue at The ROVAL. Then I was stressed out, where I would’ve really been stressed out, if I had the bad race at Talladega, just that one itself. Just go out there and execute and try and run up front all race long, and that should, hopefully, put you in an OK spot.”

Larson’s two victories in the regular season put the No. 5 Chevrolet in a solid position before the round of 16 begins. However, Larson feels the regular season didn’t match the standards the team set for themselves.

“I don’t really know if anybody, for Chase (Elliott), I don’t even know if his regular season was up to their standards,” Larson said. “There’s a lot of inconsistency this year, throughout the regular season. We had three blown engines now in the regular season. A lot of DNFs with that, but also mistakes on my part, or bad pit stops. Yes, we got a couple wins, which was nice, but we also probably gave away a couple as well. So I would say, no, it wasn’t good, but I do still feel like we are prepared for the playoffs.”

Execution has been a big key for Larson and his Cliff Daniels-led team.

“I feel like here lately, our pit crew’s been performing well, our cars have been fast all year long,” Larson said. “Cliff and our guys have been making good pit calls on top of the box. I’m doing a little bit of a better job of taking what I can get out of the race car, and not overstepping things. I feel like we’re prepared. We just got to hope that everything comes together, and this is the time of year for that. I know we have the championship-caliber team. We proved that last year, and just got to do it again.”

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