Kyle Larson is simply the best thing in NASCAR right now

  • All-time greats Richard Petty won 200 races, Jimmie Johnson won 83 (that probably won’t change) and Dale Earnhardt won 76.
  • Kyle Larson already has 21 career wins, including 15 since returning to NASCAR in 2021.
  • That’s more than twice as many as Chase Elliott (7), Joey Logano and William Byron (6), and Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch (5) have won each of their last 85 starts.

It’s probably too early to say that Kyle Larson will one day join Richard Petty, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt on NASCAR Drivers’ Mount Rushmore. After all, the current Final Four winner’s playoff format means that a single setback in Phoenix could dash a team’s championship hopes, no matter how worthy.

So while winning seven titles seems like a stretch, it’s not too soon to say that Larson is the best thing in NASCAR right now, an unofficial title he could hold all year.

Consider that in a recent eight-day stretch, the 30-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver won an Xfinity race at Darlington, a Craftsman Truck race at North Wilkesboro and the All-Star Cup race at North Wilkesboro. Maybe it doesn’t compare to Kyle Busch’s three-round weekend sweep at Bristol in 2010 and 2017, but it’s still pretty impressive in its own way.

Kyle Larson, left, is carving out a career that could one day compare favorably to that of the great Jimmie Johnson.

Sean Gardner//Getty Images

Larson’s resume would be even better if it weren’t for two late-race mishaps that almost certainly cost him wins earlier in the month.

On May 7, second-placed Denny Hamlin aggressively knocked Larson down as Larson led on the final lap at Kansas. (Larson managed to finish second). A week later at Darlington, the day after his Xfinity race win, Larson had a comfortable lead until a late warning bunched up. When he and Ross Chastain crashed out on the restart, what seemed like a certain victory turned into a 20th place finish.

But back to that image of Larson on Mount Rushmore from the drivers:

Petty won 200 races, Johnson won 83 (that probably won’t change) and Earnhardt won 76 before dying at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. Larson already has 21 career wins, including 15 since returning to NASCAR in 2021. That’s more than twice as many as Chase Elliott (7), Joey Logano and William Byron (6), and Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch (5) in their last 85 starts.

Petty, Johnson and Earnhardt each won seven cups. Larson won one, in 2021, his first year with owner Rick Hendrick and crew chief Cliff Daniels. Given the continued strength of the Daniels/Larson couple, however, that number should go up. As much as anyone on the circuit, this team is a pre-race favorite almost every weekend.

Larson’s recent win at North Wilkesboro was his third in seven All-Star starts, each at a different location. He won in 2019 in Charlotte for owner Chip Ganassi, in 2021 in Texas for Hendrick, and again last weekend for Hendrick. He is the fourth driver with at least three of those wins, behind four-time winner Johnson and tied with fellow three-timers Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. Those drivers won theirs in Charlotte, site of 35 of the first 36 All-Star races.

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Kyle Larson celebrates winning the 2023 NASCAR All-Star Race.

Jared C. Tilton//Getty Images

“He’s at the top of the ladder right now and has been for most of the last few years,” said Billy Sawyer, who has spent most of his 75 years watching the races from the old venue. his family’s workplace, Richmond Raceway. “I’ve seen Junior Johnson in his prime, on dirt and asphalt, and this kid from Larson is as close to him as anyone. A bit like David Pearson, who was also good on dirt and asphalt. But right now, no one can run with Larson.

Like Sawyer, former driver Brett Bodine has seen just about everyone who has ever been someone in the Cup. He dares to talk about Larson in the same breath as three legendary icons.

“When Jimmie Johnson won his sixth Cup, I thought we were looking at the greatest Cup driver of all time,” Bodine said. “When I look at Kyle Larson now, I think we’re looking at America’s greatest driver. It’s because he beats the best of the best in every series he races, dirt or asphalt, stock car or car. wide open. Either way, he’s usually the best. I’m sure he’s good. He’s our modern-day AJ Foyt and Tony Stewart.

“He’s our modern-day AJ Foyt and Tony Stewart.”

Longtime Cup team owner Eddie Wood finds comparisons difficult. “He’s as good as anybody else right now,” he said, “but it’s hard to compare different eras in the sport. David Pearson won 43 races with (Wood Brothers Racing) after turning 37. He won his first championship at 31 and the other two at 33 and 34. It will be interesting to see what Larson (he turns 31 next month) does when he gets to the late 30s. But right now… yeah, he’s pretty good.

One can only imagine what Larson’s life would be like today were it not for April 12, 2020. That night, during the live broadcast of a iRacing event, he uttered a despicable racial slur that everyone heard. Ganassi and NASCAR immediately suspended him and NASCAR ordered sensitivity training. When several sponsors distanced themselves, Ganassi fired Larson and hired former champ Matt Kenseth for his #42 Chevy. Larson spent most of 2020 under the mainstream radar, winning countless open-wheel races and on the track.

After reviewing his rehabilitation, NASCAR reinstated Larson in October 2020. Hendrick snapped him up several weeks later with a contract for 2021 and beyond. With Daniels atop the pits, the No. 5 Chevrolet won in Las Vegas in March, the first of 10 victories during its unlikely championship season.

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Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels form NASCAR’s top 1-2.

Chris Gray then//Getty Images

There were nine more points wins that year, plus the All-Star run at Fort Worth. The last of 10 came in November at Phoenix, where the crew pulled off a jaw-dropping 12.345-second pitstop to secure the race lead, victory and the Cup. The late race stop on bail lifted Larson from fourth to first, an advantage he maintained for the final 28 laps.

Now, a full season later, he continues to do and say all the right things.

“I think about it all the time, how lucky I am and where my life and my career could have gone in 2021,” he said after dominating the $1 million All-Star race. dollars Sunday night. “Yeah, 2021, could have gone in many different directions. Luckily Rick took a chance and I will be forever grateful to him. And the time had come. Their equipment was super good. They had kind of struggled a bit until the middle of 2020 and then Chase (Elliott) was able to win the championship.

“I wouldn’t be able to accomplish any of this without great teams, and I’m super lucky to be able to race with great car owners, team leaders, in every form of racing that I do. There’s not a moment when I go to a race track where I don’t feel like I’m in the best gear with the best team around me.

Could he have imagined this return in 2020, when his great career seemed threatened?

“Before 2021, I guess I always thought I could do it,” he said of his Cup win. “I thought I had the talent to win here. I just didn’t know if it was me or the gear (because) I didn’t get hits often enough, like I got in the dirt. Once I got picked up from Hendrick, but before we ran our first race, I was confident…but I never thought I would have the stats we have so far.

“But once I got to run a few races in 2021, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m a good stock car driver, I can do this. The road has been fun so far (but) we still have a lot to accomplish. I hope to be around for a long time and figure out what Jimmie and Jeff (former HMS stars and multiple time champions) have been up to.

Crawl ? Barely. Bust over there, it’s more like that.

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Contributing Editor

Unemployed after three years as an army officer and Vietnam veteran, Al Pearce shamelessly lied on a small newspaper’s sports team in Virginia in 1969. He inherited motorsports, a strange rhythm and unknown which quickly became an obsession.

In 53 years – 48 ongoing with Autoweek – there have been thousands of NASCAR, NHRA, IMSA and APBA assignments at weekend tracks and major venues like Daytona Beach, Indianapolis, LeMans and Watkins Glen. The job — and the perks that come with it — have taken him to all 50 states and more than a dozen countries.

He was lucky enough to attract the interest of several publishers, hence his 13 motorsport-related books. He can change a tire on his Hyundai, but that’s about it.

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