In NASCAR playoff race, Kyle Larson looks to rediscover past success at TMS

FORT WORTH – Kyle Larson is well aware his numbers are down from the blockbuster 2021 season that saw him emerge as first-time NASCAR Cup Series champion.

Larson has since acquired an alternate title, courtesy of fellow-Cup and Xfinity series competitor AJ Allmendinger. In a moment of respect among peers, “Dinger” tagged Larson as “the most badass racing driver on the planet right now.”

“It means a lot to me. I really respect AJ,” said Larson, who in addition to navigating Cup’s grinding, 10-month schedule has continued his barnstorming ritual of mid-week, dirt-track racing in various classes.

“I try to race all the time and try to get better because of it,” said Larson, who will open the NASCAR Playoffs Round of 12 at Texas Motor Speedway Sunday afternoon as defending event champion of the EchoPark Automotive 500.

“Other drivers have gotten to race a lot more too, so it’s cool to see that. I feel like I’ve had a small impact on motorsports in America with the way people go about picking and choosing the races they run and not necessarily committing to one type of car like we’ve seen for so long.”

Larson is fourth in points among the dozen drivers currently eligible to win the Cup crown, a field led by Hendrick Motorsports teammate and 2020 champion Chase Elliott. Ironically, all 12 advanced via points, as non-Playoff drivers – including Prosper, Texas, native Chris Buescher of Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing – swept the three-race Round of 16.

Larson’s two race wins this season pale in comparison to the 10 he logged in 2021 during his debut with team-owner Rick Hendrick. Five of those wins were scored during the Playoffs. Larson led a massive 256 of 334 laps around TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile oval en route to victory in last October’s Cup Playoff race. Larson also won the 2021 NASCAR All-Star Race in June 2021 at “The Great American Speedway.”

Of course, all that success was scored before NASCAR officially introduced its Next Gen car platform in February. Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels quickly earned their first Next Gen win on Feb. 27 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. But Larson did not win again until prevailing on the famous Watkins Glen (NY) International Road-Course on Aug. 21 – a frustrating, six-month gap.

“Yeah, definitely longer than we obviously would like,” said Larson, driver of the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.

“It presents new challenges for sure, having a new car. It seemed like last year everything went our way and this year not much has gone our way. But I’m definitely confident in my team. I think it made us stronger going through a year like we have where it hasn’t gone perfect every single weekend.”

Xfinity Playoffs ready to rumble: Led by No. 1-seed Noah Gragson, NASCAR’s Xfinity Series Playoffs will open at TMS Saturday with the Andy’s Frozen Custard 300 at 2:30 pm

Gragson has won a series-leading six races – including three in a row – in his No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro. The 12-driver field also includes Allmendinger, Ty Gibbs, Justin Allgaier, Josh Berry, Austin Hill, Brandon Jones, Jeremy Clements, Sam Mayer, Daniel Hemric, Riley Herbst and Ryan Sieg.

More traction action?: NASCAR has applied a fresh coat of PJ1 traction compound to the TMS tarmac in a bid to create more passing opportunities through its uniquely banked turns – 20 degrees in Turns 1 and 2 and 24 degrees in Turns 3 and 4.

“It’s a compromise you’ve got to try to figure out,” said Team Penske’s Joey Logano, alluding to himself and crew chief Paul Wolfe.

“I think it (the PJ1) helps, yeah. It’s one of those repaved-type racetracks that without that it’s going to be pretty much a one-groove track and I don’t think anyone wants to see that.”

The PJ1 is heat-activated. With ambient temperatures forecast for the low-to-mid-90s this weekend, that won’t be an issue.

“Yeah, it’s going to be wicked-hot out there,” said Logano, second in Cup points and driver of the No. 22 AAA Ford Mustang.

John Sturbin is a senior writer at RacinToday.com, based in Fort Worth. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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