Chip Ganassi has done it all in motorsports. Well, almost. And if wildly talented but at times inconsistent star Kyle Larson has his way, the “almost” will disappear in a little more than a month.
The famed owner has accomplished things no one else has in the world of racing. He’s the only team owner in history to win the combination platter of the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Rolex 24, 24 Hours of Le Mans, and 12 Hours of Sebring. He’s won the INDYCAR championship eight times and done it in CART another four. What he’s never done, though, is win a championship in NASCAR, and before the race at Dover Sunday he’d never had a driver advance even to the Round of 8 in the 10-week playoff.
In steps Larson. The baby face ace known to run his car on the razor’s edge at all times has had a propensity to go over that line more than his fair share over the years. He’s led laps, he’s won stages, but since September 2017 he just hadn’t been able to close the deal. He’d advanced to NASCAR’s Round of 12 multiple times, but there’s always been something that’s held him back.
Most notably, an engine at Kansas in 2017 dropped him from third to ninth forcing him from the playoffs before the Round of 8 and ending his four-win season, the best of his career so far, anticlimactically. The ninth-place ranking was his lowest of the entire season, a season where he led the points for eleven weeks.
Last weekend at Dover proved how quickly things can change in NASCAR. At one point in 2019, Larson was ranked 21st, mired in a month-long stretch where he crashed three times in four races. He ended that run, fortuitously enough, with a third-place showing at Dover in May. He sat near the playoff bubble much of the summer, and then took off. With eight top-10 finishes in the past 10 races, Larson is officially on a run, capping it emphatically with the win at Dover.
What happens next, though? Larson and Ganassi are in uncharted territory in the standings, but it’s not like these are new tracks coming up. Larson has an established history with the final four tracks of the season, and all four break down to a similar edict: If he finishes the race he’ll be just fine.
At the Round of 8 tracks (Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix) Larson has run the fall races a combined 17 times. When he finishes, he’s good for a 12.3 average finish with three top fives sprinkled in there. The problem, though, is he’s failed to finish a Round of 8 race seven times, three from crashes, three with engine issues, and once due to handling.
This feels like a different Larson now. Whether it’s his own seasoning, past champion Kurt Busch joining the Ganassi stable this year or simply because it’s his time, the driver nicknamed Yung Money seems poised to bring Ganassi the grail he’s been chasing in stock car racing. Of course, he’d have to match Tony Stewart (2011) as the only driver to get his first win of the season in the playoffs and then win the championship.
Oh, and if he does make it to the Championship 4 at Homestead, Larson faces a track where he’s averaged 54 laps led per race in his career. He hasn’t won in Miami, but three top fives in six starts promise he’d be a factor.
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