By Rick Minter
After six second-place finishes and one win this season, some in the sport questioned whether Kyle Larson was racing as aggressively as he needed to be to realize his full potential.
On Sunday in the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Larson surged forward at the end, taking the lead from Kyle Busch on a restart with 15 laps remaining, then held off all comers to get his second win of the season, his second in a row at Michigan and his third in a row when it comes to 2-mile tracks. His earlier win this season was at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
Larson won Sunday’s race in a manner that seems to suit his personality. He didn’t rough up anyone; he simply outdrove them in the same manner that Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott and other Hall of Famers did back in the day.
Larson’s emergence as both the Series points leader and a strong contender for the championship has come at a time when the NASCAR world is trying to figure out which young drivers will rise up to replace the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the recently retired Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
Larson said that while some might say NASCAR as a whole is in a tough spot with its marquee drivers fading away, he sees the changing of the guard in a different light.
“I keep saying that NASCAR is in a great, great spot,” Larson, 24, said in the winner’s interview at Michigan. “Even with Dale Jr. retiring this year, I think it’s a huge opportunity for our sport.
“Dale Jr. has probably three-quarters of our fan base. You might lose a few thousand of his fans that might disappear. The rest of them are going to pick new drivers. I think new rivalries are going to be built. It’s going to bring some excitement back to the race track.”
Already this season, newcomers Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon have won races, and Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones are in top-notch equipment and poised to win as well. And there are others like Joey Logano, who has been around the Cup circuit for 10 years and won 18 races, but is still just 27 years old.
“I’m happy that I seem to be head of that youth movement right now,” Larson said. “So many drivers in great equipment right now that are running up front. It’s just a great time for NASCAR. I think everybody is kind of nervous about where it’s going to be, but I think a lot of us, our fan bases are going to grow as well as NASCAR’s fan base.”
Larson, who started from the pole at Michigan and led the most laps with 96, still didn’t appear to have the winning combination until the final laps.
“The 78 [Martin Truex Jr.] was by far the class of the field, I thought,” Larson said. “I know I led a lot of laps. Seemed like whenever he wanted to get the lead, he hit a nitro button and would cruise up to the lead, then check out. He was the class of the field. … I thought we were probably a third- or fourth-place car. To come out a winner, it makes it that much more exciting.”
Chase Elliott finished second for the third straight time in Cup races at Michigan. He was followed by Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Jamie McMurray.
Elliott, who is fifth in the points standings on the strength of five top-five and nine top-10 finishes this year, said he felt like his No. 24 was faster than he thought it would be prior to Sunday’s 400-miler.
“The way we struggled Friday and Saturday [in practice], felt like we overachieved from what we thought we were going to have coming into the race,” he said, adding that the pit crew of his No. 24 Chevy did an excellent job. “I can’t express how nice that was to come in and gain two or three spots. It was unreal. Hope we can keep some of that moving forward.”
Elliott said his car just wasn’t handling quite well enough to beat Larson, who used the advantageous outside lane to bolt forward on a couple of late restarts to put himself in position to win.
“I tried to keep [Larson] behind me,” Elliott said. “Our car kind of fired off a little bit snug, just had to wait a little while to get freed up.
“He took advantage of that and went on to win. Happy for him. Had a fast car, did a good job, executed his race well.”