Kyle Larson Begins Title Defense as Rare Underdog

After dominating last season, Kyle Larson begins his title defense as an underdog.
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports

Hendrick Motorsports has all four of their cars back in the playoffs as they seek their 10th championship since 2006. Two of those nine titles in the last 16 years were won by pillars of the sport in Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. While Elliott holds the top overall seed this year after claiming the regular season championship, it is Larson who is playing the underdog role heading into today's race.

Last season Larson hit the ground running as the newest driver in the Hendrick stable. He won 10 races, and collected 20 top-five finishes along the way. He led 2,581 laps which was more than 1,000 more than the next-highest driver. To put that in perspective, Larson led more than a quarter of the total laps during the season - a staggering 28 percent. The 30-year old was the very definition of the word dominant.

When it came to race day, Larson and the No. 5 team were always the ones to beat. They won three consecutive races at three very different race tracks - the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte, Sonoma Raceway, and Nashville. Those wins came on the heels of three straight runner-up finishes at Darlington, Dover, and COTA. They were firing on all cylinders down the stretch, winning four of the last five races.

This season has not played out the same way, largely due to the arrival of the NextGen car. It has certainly leveled the playing field, and the parity has been quite evident. There were 15 different race winners in the 26 regular season races, and Elliott was the only driver to record more than two victories.

Larson still had a solid year, but he had half (10) as many top-five finishes and eight less wins. He led just 307 laps in the regular season and the team's late-race execution just hasn't been there. Some of that has been out of their control, but those are the types of things that can derail a championship run. Three of their six DNFs this season have been engine failures.

Kyle Larson Begins Title Defense as Rare Underdog

Larson was quick to take some of the blame for some of their shortcomings. “We had three blown engines in the regular season, but also mistakes on my part or bad pit stops. We got a couple wins but we also probably gave away a couple. I do still feel like we are prepared for the playoffs. Our pit crew has been performing well and our cars have been fast all year long. I’m doing a little bit better job of just taking what I can get from the car, so I feel like we’re prepared.”

Although they begin today's race as the 4th seed, Larson is confident that they can get the job done. “I know we have a championship caliber team. We proved that last year and we just have to do it again.”

Doing that will take patience, and consistency. Execution is another area where this team has been focused on as of late. "We have contended often, we just haven’t executed well enough to win. There have been plenty of times this year where the guy that won the race, we were faster than them. Their team just did a better job. We won at Watkins Glen because we executed a good race, so I think we are in a good spot. I think we can contend and go get some wins."

There is a difference between being confident and being cocky. Larson knows they are good, but that they are not alone in that regard. "We should be one of the favorites. I think you can look at Chase, obviously, and Ross Chastain. I would say us three probably, and definitely the Joe Gibbs Racing guys. They are the ones that could go out there and win. I think there are other teams that can do a better job of executing, but the Gibbs guys probably have the fastest and best-handling cars to go out there and really win to advance that way."

The trip to Darlington earlier this year did not go well. After starting on the front row, the car had an engine issue and they ended up finishing 36th. Odds are, things will be different today as they chase a race win to automatically advance to the next round. Even if they don't, the next two races provide optimism.

Larson finished 2nd at Kansas, and 4th at Bristol earlier this season. “This first round sets up really nice for us and our team. I think it’s a good opportunity for us to have a good few showings, get some playoff points, and try to put ourselves in a better spot as we approach the next couple of rounds.”

Earning points along the way will be crucial too, as the Round of 12 will not exactly be a cake walk with tracks like Talladega and the Charlotte Roval looming. That nearly bit Larson's team last season. "The second round last year, we had a bad Talladega. Then we had an alternator issue at the Roval, and I was stressed out. We just need to go out there, execute, and try to run up front all race long and that should hopefully put us in an okay spot."

Kyle Larson Begins Title Defense as Rare Underdog

Last year, Larson entered the playoffs as the top-seed with 52 points, which provided a buffer. With just 19 points now, the pressure to perform is real. Today's race is the perfect place to start. While he has never won at Darlington, Larson has five top-fives in nine starts, including three consecutive runner-up finishes. He has led 686 laps here and should add to that total today as he rolls off in the 7th starting position.

Like a duck to water, Larson has just adapted well to this track. "I have yet to get a win here, but I feel like it’s in my top three or four for best tracks on the circuit, as far as average running position throughout the race and stuff like that. It just seems to fit my racing style. It’s really technical. You have to move your line around a little bit and be patient. It's a very demanding race track. It’s just fun, I really enjoy it."

Larson is trying to become the first back-to-back Cup champion since Jimmie Johnson in 2010. Only three drivers have accomplished that feat in the last 30 years. Larson would be in elite company, joining the likes of Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt. The Intimidator went back-to-back three times (1987, 1991, 1994) while Johnson won his fifth consecutive title in that 2010 season.

In terms of strategy today, Larson plans to race a little more conservatively. "Everybody looks at me as a guy that runs the wall, which in most cases is true. But at Darlington, at least in turns three and four, I tend to stay away from it. I still run the top, but I give myself some room, just trying to stay out of the wall." This team knows the ultimate goal is to just stay out of trouble.

On the prospects of defending his title, Larson doesn't put any added pressure on himself or his team. "Winning the championship would make me the first back-to-back winner since Jimmie, but I don’t let that add any more pressure. I think that also shows just how difficult this playoff format is to when Jimmie was winning. He and his team were so good that it seemed like they could just stretch out in points to where now you can’t do that. You can’t really stretch yourself out from anyone with this format."

Kyle Larson Begins Title Defense as Rare Underdog

A Southern 500 victory tonight would do more than just cement Larson's legacy even further. It would end a significant drought for Hendrick at the track. The organization has 14 Cup wins at Darlington, but it has been more than a decade (May, 2012) since they last went to victory lane here. Chevrolet has somewhat of a dry spell going too, as the last 11 races here have been won by Toyota and Ford.

The overriding theme this season is that winning means everything. Just ask Martin Truex Jr about that. The 2014 Cup champion led all drivers in stage wins, ranked top-five in laps led, had the second-best average finishing position, and finished 4th in the regular season standings. Because he did not win a race, he is not one of the 16 drivers fighting for the title.

Winning is always the goal, but there is more of an emphasis on it this year than ever before. A win means advancing to the next round of the playoffs, inching a driver that much closer to the ultimate goal of a championship. Larson knows that feeling, and hopes to experience it again very soon.

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