Kyle Larson morphing into elite driver

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Nobody doubted Kyle Larson and his elite talent, going into this season. That’s what made him a top prize in silly season, last year. Up until 2021, however, it came in flashes; be it from mid-tier equipment at Chip Ganassi Racing or his termination for using a racial slur. He never took the next step into elite driver status.

This season, he flexed his talent with a thread the needle pass at Darlington, put on an absolute clinic at Dover and Charlotte and was in position to win at Circuit of the Americas, before rain shortened it.

After his win, Sunday, at Sonoma Raceway, there’s nowhere he can’t win.

Kyle Larson morphing into elite driver

Climb through the field

SONOMA, Calif. – JUNE 6: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 6, 2021, in Sonoma, California. Photo: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Larson restarted the final stage of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 in 21st, after 20 cars stayed out. In just seven laps, he went from 21st to third. Yes, he was on fresher tires, but new tires matter only to a certain point. Eventually, driver talent must carry you.

And for three laps, we got a battle of talents between him and Chase Elliott. The reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion held back Larson’s charge. Eventually, however, Larson out-drove the current road course king into Turn 7 to retake the lead.

“Throughout the race when I passed (Martin Truex Jr.), ran (Elliott) down and passed him, like it definitely helped my confidence out a lot throughout the race,” Larson said. “I think going forward it will, too.”

And while the outcome was never a given, like last Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 was, the late restarts didn’t really concern crew chief, Cliff Daniels.

“I think either way, once we had gotten out to the lead, still under green before the yellows happened at the end, I think Kyle was going to be really smart with how he managed everything,” he said. “He was going to maintain a pretty good gap. I think we would have been okay at that point.

“I knew it was going to be critical to make sure we had a good launch on the restarts, have a good first couple corners. Kyle did just a phenomenal job of nailing I think it was three restarts, nailing all of that.”

And nail them, he did.

He scored his first career road course victory, a style of racing that was once his weakest link. Combined with his runner-up finish at Circuit of the Americas, there’s nowhere I can definitively say he can’t win at now.

Kyle Larson morphing into elite drive

Larson’s now the championship favorite

SONOMA, Calif. – JUNE 6: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, leads Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, and William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, to start the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway on June 6, 2021, in Sonoma, California. Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In the span of four races, Hendrick Motorsports’ cars finished first and second in all of them. Which set a new NASCAR record. What’s more, Larson could’ve won all four of them.

Moreover, not even halfway through the season, he’s already matched Denny Hamlin‘s stage win total from 2020 with 11. Now the regular season championship and playoff points bonus, which was all but Hamlin’s to lose just five weeks ago, might be Larson’s to steal.

“I think there for a few weeks, I was probably over a hundred-and-something points behind Denny Hamlin,” he said. “I was like, ‘He’s kind of got it locked up.’ I kind have thought, ‘Well, I mean, I’ve had a couple really bad finishes, and he hasn’t had any. If he just has one bad race, we’ll be right back in it,’ which he still hasn’t had any bad races, DNF’s or anything like that. We’ve had a few really good weeks where we’ve won stages, won the race these last couple weeks. We’ve taken huge chunks out of it.

“It’s definitely a goal of mine to get those I think 15 bonus Playoff points if you can win it. Yeah, we just got to keep finishing the races, gaining a lot of stage points, and finishing up front, not making things bad, just trying to be smooth and finish the best we can.”

If he does, he’ll definitively become the elite driver we’ve always thought he’d be.

TOP IMAGE: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images