Kyle Larson’s a NASCAR title favorite, but did he think he would be? Not so much ...

Kyle Larson won the regular season finale at Richmond, and now he’s one of the favorites to win the Cup Series championship.
Kyle Larson won the regular season finale at Richmond, and now he’s one of the favorites to win the Cup Series championship. AP

A series of miscues doomed Kyle Larson in his first trip to the NASCAR playoffs last season.

Take Chicago, the first postseason race of 2016. He was running 5th or 6th until the last few laps, when he cut a right front tire and slid to 18th. Then at New Hampshire he ran 10th. Needing a strong finish at Dover to advance to the second round, he pulled into the first pit stop – and a battery fell out. He came in 25th, his title hopes finished.

“I don’t even really feel,” Larson said Wednesday, “like I was a part of the playoffs last year.”

Perhaps not. And for the way he went out, Larson could’ve justifiably been angry or sad or even energized in defeat.

“It’s kind of all of the above,” he said. “You’re (mad), you’re depressed, but you’re also motivated that you know what, I want to go out there and prove that we belong.”

Larson has done just that this season. He got his first Cup Series victory in 2016, which qualified him for the playoffs, but that didn’t make him a favorite to win the title.

Then consider this season. Larson has won four times, tied for the most of any driver, including the regular-season finale at Richmond last weekend. He’s second in the playoff standings. And perhaps the biggest difference of all, he’s on the short list of drivers expected to make it to the final four in Homestead.

That’s a far cry from feeling like an outsider at this time last season.

“Last year I knew we would have to do a lot not necessarily to make it past the first round, but definitely the second round,” Larson said. “I feel like we’ve already made it a round further this year. I don’t want to jinx myself, but I just feel more confident this year, and I think I should be.”

He’s right. His 11 top-five finishes are tied for tops in the sport, and it’s almost his expectation to run in that realm every race.

In his second trip to the playoffs, Larson can truly look back and reflect on how he has learned to win. And he can truthfully answer the question: Could he ever have imagined a year ago that he’d be where he is today?

“No,” Larson said with a grin. “I mean I knew we’d be better than we were last year, but I didn’t know we’d be one of the best.

“It’s just a testament to a lot of hard work.”

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks