MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Anyone who thought Kyle Larson might be rusty upon his return to the NASCAR Cup Series has been proven wrong over the first three races of the season.
Larson earned two top-10 finishes in the opening month of the year, and likely would have been a perfect three-for-three if not for a late spin during the Feb. 21 road course race at Daytona Int’l Speedway.
That was the only misstep on a résumé that has been nearly flawless since Larson’s return to NASCAR with the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team.
“I’ve been happy with the start of the year,” Larson said during a media conference call this week. “I feel like for the most part, we’ve contended for a win, in a way, each week. So that’s been good. … I wish I could have turn six back at the (Daytona) road course because I felt like we had a great shot to win, but would have likely finished top three in that race, but I’m happy with where we’re at.
“It’s a new team and new faces,” Larson added. “I haven’t been in a Cup car in a long time and to be as strong as we’ve been and drive the whole race at every race has been really good. So I’ve been happy.”
After being suspended by NASCAR and subsequently fired by Chip Ganassi Racing last April, Larson’s NASCAR comeback during Speedweeks at Daytona Intl Speedway last month left him pleasantly surprised he didn’t have more relearning to do.
Part of that shortened curve, Larson admitted, likely was due to his 46-win season on dirt that kept him “as fresh as ever” behind the wheel.
“I was surprised. I thought there would be cobwebs and rust,” Larson noted. “But maybe because I raced so much last year in sprint cars and open-wheel cars, and dabbled in some late model stuff, I felt as fresh as ever in a race car. Your body just gets into a rhythm of even buckling in the car each week. When I got in the car and put my head and neck restraint on and buckled up and all that, everything just felt normal. It didn’t feel like I had been out of the car a long time. So that was good. Even shifting gears and coming down pit road and stopping on my pit sign and stuff like that, it’s all come naturally so far.
“I don’t really feel like I’ve made any mistakes doing those little things. I think when you’re out of a car for a long time, it’s the little things that you forget about,” he continued. “I think just the preparation that I’ve done by looking at data and lots of in-car videos … and some iRacing and stuff like that has helped make that transition a little bit easier for me.”
As he’s adapted to a new organization, Larson explained he hasn’t felt many of the differences that he thought he might between Chip Ganassi Racing and Hendrick Motorsports.
“If anything, the only difference I really felt at Homestead was just the ride quality was a little bit smoother. There are some bumps on entry to (turn) three up top and usually with the No. 42, I could feel those a lot,” tipped Larson. “In the No. 5 car this weekend, it was just much smoother and it kind of floated across those easier. I’ve been so used to the Ganassi car and how it feels there and feeling those bumps and I’ve ran so many laps on the top there, I could kind of use those bumps as a trigger to my brain and knowing when to lift going through those bumps.
“This past week my car was so smooth through there that it was kind of hard for me to get into a rhythm at first on entry up top, but we’re figuring things out.”
Larson’s focus now is on making a run into the NASCAR Cup Series playoff field, which has three drivers — Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell and William Byron — locked in with victories through three races.
The Elk Grove, Calif., driver is eighth in aggregate points and ninth in the playoff standings but knows that isn’t necessarily safe with 23 regular season races remaining.
“Points are always important. You never want to be in that bubble spot,” said Larson. “I’ve been in that before and it’s not a nice feeling. You need to go out there and wrack up as many stage points as you can and get the best finish you can get each weekend and try to limit those races where you finish outside of the top 20.”
Larson will pursue a victory at Las Vegas (Nev.) Motor Speedway this weekend during the running of the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube at the 1.5-mile oval.
His best finish in Cup Series competition at Las Vegas is second, earned in March of 2017 and repeated during the 2018 playoffs.
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