Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson says he knows his place during Chase races. Doesn’t mean that place couldn’t be Victory Lane.
It’s a slightly odd arrangement NASCAR has, where its regular season and playoffs are all one this time of year. Sixteen drivers who qualified for the Chase try to advance to the next round after Dover this weekend. That doesn’t mean everyone else should just stroll around along the track apron.
Larson demonstrated as much Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway when, as a non-Chase driver, he finished second in the Sylvania 300. He says he understands to be respectful of the stakes Chase drivers face, but that shouldn’t make him sheepish, either.
“The only thing we’re racing for right now is wins, I guess,” Larson said. “You’ve got to be cautious of those guys, but still race them hard. We’re not just out there being field-fillers, we’re out there racing.
“You’ve got to race hard, but they’ve got a lot to lose. You have to understand that. They’ve got to understand we’re not all going to just back down just because they’re in the Chase. But we’re obviously not going to do anything stupid to affect them.”
Larson beat Kevin Harvick over the last two laps in New Hampshire to take second place behind Joey Logano. He’s having a late-season surge, having finished third in Chicagoland, the first race of the Chase format. Does that create any “what-if” feelings about his season?
“The only ‘what-if’ I know is we’d be in the next round (of the Chase) with the two finishes we had,” Larson said. “It’s a little bit disappointing seeing how well we’ve been running and not be in the Chase
“I know other teams in the Chase notice that and I’m sure they’re worried about us for next season already.”
“Worry” might be debatable, but respect from the veterans is evident. Harvick mentioned how tough Larson was down the stretch in New Hampshire. Jeff Gordon has been effusive in his praise of Larson’s maturity and talent.
“I’ve been saying this about him for two years, so this is not new for me,” Gordon said last Friday. “I’ve had my eye on him for a long time and, yeah, he’s the real deal.
“We’ve seen young guys throughout the years come along who can separate themselves from others and do exciting things that make people want to watchI’ve heard a lot of people say that about me over the years and now I get it. I see what he’s doing and how people are reacting to it.”
New Hampshire was Larson’s seventh top-5 finish this season. He didn’t see himself finishing second Sunday after slipping into the teens much of the first 100 laps. But the guy is learning on the fly.
“We weren’t a second-place car by any means,” Larson said. “Crazy how many cautions there were at the end. Finally figured it out the last time, was able to get to second, and hold off Kevin for two laps.
“Hopefully someday soon I’ll get one spot better.”