Larson seeks NASCAR championship – CBS Detroit

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Kyle Larson has heard that mental toughness is needed to win a championship. He has no idea if that’s true – and if it’s necessary, well, then he doesn’t consider himself the championship favorite this weekend.

MARTINSVILLE, VIRGINIA – OCTOBER 31: # 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet driver Kyle Larson waits on the grid before the NASCAR Cup Series Xfinity 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 31, 2021 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Logan Riely / Getty Images)

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The tenacity, Larson said, reminds him of veteran pilot Kevin Harvick. And when he thinks of mental toughness, Larson refers to Tony Stewart and the 2011 press conference where Stewart criticized Carl Edwards from the start of the title.

But Larson? Hard? He is 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 135 pounds. When asked which weapon he would choose in a zombie apocalypse, Larson replied that he would take his orders from fellow drivers Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, and Corey LaJoie. He would let them rule.

“People tell me all the time that you have to be mentally tough to win the championship, and I feel like enough people are telling me about the fact that you have to act differently when it comes to the playoffs,” said Larson in an interview with The Associated Press. “But I’m not a badass. So I don’t know how to be tough. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.

He is doing very well.

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS – OCTOBER 24: Kyle Larson, driver of the # 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, waits on the grid before the NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 24, 2021 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

Larson, 29, has been considered a future NASCAR champion his entire career. He came to the series as a 19 year old sprint car sensation and those who know such things have said that Larson was even better than Jeff Gordon and Stewart, a pair of drivers who started on dirt and are now NASCAR Hall of Famers.

He didn’t disappoint when he arrived in 2012, but his Chip Ganassi Racing gear was rarely fast enough. Larson had six underperforming wins with Ganassi and never made the title round.

Yet 2020 was a contract year with Ganassi and Larson, he was a much sought after free agent. He probably could have named his award with a new team – until he used a racial slur during an online race at the start of the pandemic. NASCAR suspended him for the season, Ganassi had to fire him to appease the angry sponsors and Larson wasn’t sure if he would ever return.

Larson doesn’t use his experience or his ability to bounce back from his mistake as a show of mental toughness. He’s a racing driver who wants to run every day, everything else is not that deep.

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS – OCTOBER 24: # 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet driver Kyle Larson points skyward as he celebrates winning the NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 24, 2021 in Kansas City , Kansas. (Photo by Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

And so here he heads to Sunday’s race in Arizona in the comeback of all returns. He’s the star driver of Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR’s most successful team that hired him a year ago, and the favorite to end his nine-game winning season with a championship.

Larson weathered the storm and emerged on the better side.

On the track, he was virtually unbeatable. He drives the fastest cars in the sport and has made sponsor HendrickCars.com one of the top car buying sites. His contract has been extended until 2023, and Hendrick Automotive’s marketing budget will sponsor 35 of Larson’s 36 NASCAR races.

Off track, he has matured enormously. He said he took a step back from the weekly rounds of golf with Denny Hamlin and their pack of friends, and this new free time opened his eyes to all he needed at home with his children. . He’s stepped up his game at home and at work, and Larson has become such an automatic he’s the new face of team owner Rick Hendrick’s charitable efforts.

Hendrick picked Larson from a list that includes Elliott, the defending Cup Series champion and most popular NASCAR driver, as well as Gordon, who left the broadcast booth this summer to help run Hendrick Motorsports.

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS – OCTOBER 24: Kyle Larson, driver of the # 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, waits on the grid before the NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 24, 2021 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

Larson, in his seventh full Cup season, is Hendrick’s new guy.

When asked if Larson had done all he expected when he offered him the No.5 Chevrolet for a second chance at NASCAR, Hendrick replied, “More. Much more than I would expect him to do.

“He was the head of our whole program to feed people. I don’t know a rider as busy as this guy who spends so much time trying to do good to others, ”said Hendrick. “If you just look at his track record, what he’s accomplished this year, going to food banks, schools, donating money, just trying to be a role model citizen. … I didn’t ask him to do anything. He did it on his own. “

Larson spent his season in exile primarily in the sprint car world, cruising the country in an RV with his wife and two children, jumping from track to track, from car to car, wherever the show took place. in the city. He won 46 races very publicly, with Stewart among those claiming Larson had served his sentence and deserved to be back in NASCAR.

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Larson was in no rush.

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – OCTOBER 04: # 23 McDonald’s Toyota Driver Bubba Wallace chats with Cincinnati # 5 Chevrolet Driver Kyle Larson on victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 04 April 2021 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

His absence gave him a quiet space to work on his own personal growth. He has volunteered locally to help understand the social and economic issues that so many people face.

Larson says he was naive, not racist when he said the “n” word in April 2020. And he was fine if the consequence of not knowing better meant the end of his promising NASCAR career.

“Until that happened, I didn’t really think I was going to come back to the Cup Series one day and nothing looked too promising,” said Larson. “I accepted it. I spent the time of my life running, sprinting with cars and dwarves, then late models. I was doing things that I always wanted to do – maybe I didn’t think I would at 28 – but I accepted it.

Grateful for the opportunity, he is now the driver many predicted he was going to be. Twice this season he’s had three straight wins, won the Million Dollar All-Star Race and was the driver on the day Hendrick Motorsports passed Petty Enterprises as NASCAR’s most successful team.

Larson has won the playoffs four times, at least once in each of the three playoff rounds, and his victory two weeks ago in Kansas made him the only of four championship drivers to earn his spot in the final.

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS – OCTOBER 24: # 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet driver Kyle Larson points skyward as he celebrates winning the NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 24, 2021 in Kansas City , Kansas. (Photo by Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)

In Kansas, Larson also broke Gordon’s 20-year-old record of 2,320 laps led in a single season. En route to Phoenix, Larson led 2,474 laps.

He can’t really explain why everything clicks at Hendrick, where he was given Hendrick’s original car number 5 and the final crew to work with retired seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Larson also thinks it’s best this way, for perfectionist team leader Cliff Daniels to learn more by examining data than he can from his driver.

“I think I feel like a car like anyone else, but what maybe makes me different is that I race so much that I have experience with a lot of chefs. different team, ”Larson said. “I’m really easy going and I don’t know anything about race cars, I know you just have to let them do their job. “

Steve Letarte, former Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. crew chief and now an analyst for NBC Sports, believes Larson staying away from Daniels was key.

This allowed Daniels to take the fastest cars in the sport and polish them for a driver known for his incredible control of the car. Letarte said Daniels earlier this year attended some of Larson’s land races to understand “his vernacular.”

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS – OCTOBER 24: # 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet driver Kyle Larson stops during the NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 24, 2021 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

“Kyle himself admits that he doesn’t understand the set-up of a Cup car. He just gets in the car and drives it as fast as it can be driven or at the level Cliff expects him to drive it, ”Letarte said. “They have a very impressive working relationship. He delivered the car Kyle Larson needs.

The duo are due to click again on Sunday, where Larson must beat Elliott, Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. in the winner’s final.

Elliott and Truex are former champions, Hamlin is 0 of 4 in title chances, and this is Larson’s first attempt.

Larson said he didn’t know what it would feel like if he didn’t end his comeback year with a championship. He’s won 29 races between sprint cars and NASCAR and he is grateful to Hendrick for allowing him to do both.

He knows he’s come back from a mistake that could have ended his career, and Larson also knows he’s already proven he’s never been over-excited. His use of a racial insult will always be a part of his story, but it’s unclear what else will be remembered this season.

“It’s hard for me to think if people will really remember if you don’t win the championship. You can read in that extra pressure that I want to win the championship, even more, to top off what has been a great season, ”said Larson. “So that’s my goal. And hopefully we can wrap it up and be mentioned as one of the best five seasons of all time. “

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