Kyle Larson’s victory Sunday in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway was emotional for him on several levels.
First, it was Larson’s first Cup victory, coming in the 99th start of his career. It also ensured him a spot in the Chase, NASCAR’s 16-driver postseason that will begin in September. He did it by beating rookie Chase Elliott out of a late restart, leading the final 10 laps.
As those final laps wound down and it became apparent to Larson that – barring something unforeseen – he would finally win, tears came to his eyes.
He was thinking about his close friend, Bryan Clauson, a dirt-track racer who died in a crash at a Kansas track recently.
“I was pretty calm for a couple laps,” said Larson, holding his young son Owen on his lap after the race. “Then I started shaking, legs a little numb there for a couple laps. I was starting to get choked up. It was finally going to be it. This one is for the Clauson family. We really miss Bryan. We love you guys. We’re going to miss him.”
It was a breakthrough race for Chip Ganassi Racing’s Larson, the first driver from NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity program (he’s Japanese-American) to win. At 24, he’s been considered one of the sport’s future stars, but he was lacking that first victory.
“Yeah, no question the kid has talent, he can drive,” said team owner Chip Ganassi. “Everybody knew it was a matter of just when. But you know that we’ve been second plenty of times. I can’t tell you how much respect I have for the people on the team that do the work, that hung in there.”
Said Larson: “We’ve been close a few times throughout my Sprint Cup career. To finally put it all together and get a win, it’s awesome. Glad to get it before my 100th start next week.”
Still, Larson needed a late caution to get in position to win. After a debris caution came out on Lap 188 (of 200), he and Elliott were positioned on the front row.
Both young drivers spun their tires on the restart, but Larson got a push from behind from Brad Keselowski and jumped to the lead. He stayed there the rest of the way.
“At the end I gave Kyle a really good push,” said Keselowski, who finished third. “It looked like Chase spun his tires a little bit. Next thing you know, we were off to the races. I got up to second. I wasn’t as fast as Chase, wasn’t able to get by him. Kyle was able to drive away, which was kind of the tale of the tape there on the short runs.”
Ganassi said he wasn’t surprised to hear Larson talk about his friend Clauson so soon after winning. Larson has been cool under pressure in races he hasn’t won, even saying he wouldn’t wreck a driver in order to accomplish that (as he did when he didn’t move winner Matt Kenseth out of the way at Dover earlier this season).
“That’s Kyle,” Ganassi said. “It’s the same thing whether it’s his friends, whether it’s Bryan or (Ricky) Stenhouse (Jr.). Even going back, today I think about days like at Dover where we finished second behind Matt. He was up alongside Matt. Everybody said, ‘Why didn’t you hit him, why didn’t you do this or that?’ That’s Kyle.
“I think it’s important to understand that these guys are not robots. We want to cookie-cutter them into saying, ‘He’s this, this driver is this, this team is that, this team is that.’ Really, they’re all different. They’re all different personalities. I couldn’t be more proud of how he’s developed over the last couple of years in Cup.”
Clauson, who had hoped to race 200 times this season on lower levels, had a signature yell whenever he won a race, something he did numerous times as a sprint-car driver.
So that’s what Larson shouted into his radio as he crossed the finish line Sunday:
Larson then performed a lengthy victory burnout – spinning and smoking the tires of his No. 42 Chevy across the front stretch and into Victory Lane.
“(Clauson) didn’t like people doing burnouts and stuff like that, because he wanted you to act like you’ve been to Victory Lane before,” Larson said. “But I hadn’t been to Victory Lane before, so I was going to do some burnouts.”