CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) NASCAR’s offseason is short, and Kyle Larson made sure to take advantage of every day of his break.
He focused on racing.
There’s been almost no break at all for Larson. He spent so much time racing away from home this winter that when his family returned to North Carolina this week, 3-year-old son Owen could confirm that Santa had indeed visited on Christmas.
Larson was a strong championship contender in a career-breakout 2017 season, and many believe he was the top threat in Martin Truex Jr.’s title campaign. Only an engine failure knocked Larson from the playoffs before he got a chance to race for his first NASCAR championship.
Any disappointment from the NASCAR miss was alleviated halfway across the world in New Zealand, where Larson spent nearly three weeks during the holidays. He won three of four features, then hustled back to the U.S. to race the Chili Bowl in Oklahoma.
Larson was a bona fide contender all last week in Tulsa. He and fellow NASCAR driver Christopher Bell were setting up what was expected to be a thrilling race to the finish last Saturday night when Larson’s engine failed, again. He’s now 0-for-11 at the Chili Bowl.
”Maybe someday it will turn around for me,” Larson said this week while promoting an increased sponsorship package between Chip Ganassi Racing and DC Solar.
The NASCAR failure hurt worse than the Chili Bowl, because when his engine expired at Kansas during the playoffs, his entire season went up in a plume of smoke. At the Chili Bowl, a weeklong display from the best in midget racing before a cult-like following, Larson knows he’ll have another chance at his first Golden Driller trophy next year.
A Cup title? Well, those can be a case of lost opportunities.
Larson knocked off a career-best four wins last season, notching new highs in every meaningful on-track statistic. Although he was a career-best eighth in the final Cup standings, he might have had a shot at the title if the blown engine hadn’t prematurely stopped the playoff run.
He’d be the first to acknowledge the final month of the season, when he was out of the playoffs, was disappointing. By racing most of the offseason, he believes he’s sharp and ready to go when NASCAR opens next month at Daytona.
That’s key, he believes, because if the No. 42 Chevrolet team can get off to a strong start, it bodes well for the championship.
”Last year I didn’t know we were going to be that good, and then we started the year good and I thought `Wow, we have a really good shot at the championship early on,” Larson said. ”We maintained that consistency and competitiveness.”
Larson’s first victory last season came at Fontana, California, the fifth race of the year. A win all but ensures a driver a spot in the playoffs, so he had the bulk of the season to find a groove. Larson went on to 20 top-10 finishes, three poles and three additional wins.
At 25 and entering his fifth season in the Cup Series, Larson is at the top end of NASCAR’s new youth movement. He’s considered one of the many drivers who are the future of the sport, and his success and popularity will tie to NASCAR’s ability to navigate its current changing of the guard.
He’s ready, and thinks racing fans are about to be spoiled by the show his generation is about to stage. Along with Larson, the young crop of new drivers includes Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and two new faces at Hendrick Motorsports in Alex Bowman and William Byron.
Larson is ready to be the best of not only that group, but take his Ganassi team to its first NASCAR championship.
”I feel like when you get close last year like we did, it pushes everybody to be as good or better than we were before,” Larson said. ”I expect to be contenders again. I definitely feel like we have an extremely good group of people to do what it will take.”
For now, Larson has to take down the Christmas decorations and get Owen back on a routine. His break is just long enough for Larson: He’s back in a car at the end of the month when he tests the new Camaro at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Then it’s off to Daytona to prepare for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18.
”I feel fresh, I’m ready to go,” Larson said.