Easy Money Wants To Win Badly At Home Track

Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson’s success at the famed Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway is to some extent, a microcosm of his season.

He’s won the pole position for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at the track for the past three years, but hasn’t been there at the finish to take home the big trophy. Similarly, the popular young driver has been good on the season – he won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series All-Star race last month – but he’s still looking for his first points-paying victory.

This could well be the track and the weekend that changes all that.

The Sonoma Raceway road course is essentially a home race track for the Elk Grove, California native. He fondly recalls coming to races as a fan when he was a young boy, even dressing in his racing hero Jeff Gordon’s kid-size fire suit.

And the feel-good has continued as an adult. The day before his 2014 rookie series debut at the track, Larson won the pole and led every lap to claim the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West victory.

He’d love to replicate the good vibes and past performance in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 . And judging by his work in Friday’s opening two practice sessions, he’s a good bet. Larson led final practice in his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Qualifying for the race is set for Saturday afternoon.

“We don’t ever come here and set up to get a pole,” Larson told reporters Friday afternoon. “We come here to try and win the race and have the set-up capable of winning the race. So it just happens to work out where I’ve been good for short-run kind of stuff here my whole career.

“It seems like it’s kind of the same thing again this weekend. So, I don’t know. We’ve tried all sorts of different stuff so maybe it’s just my fault why I’m only good at qualifying.”

In an unusual twist of fate, the fact Larson has only five previous Monster Energy Series starts at Sonoma may well work into his favor this weekend. The Sonoma track will feature a new look for the first time since 1997. And the change in course – extending it from 1.99-miles to 2.52-miles and adding the famous carousel turn – has garnered plenty of headlines and strong opinions. No one entered this weekend has ever run this longer track version in a Cup race.

It certainly didn’t slow Larson down in the opening practice sessions. In fact, he even told reporters the new section of the course may well be his favorite part.

“It’s just a few extra corners so it’s not a big deal I guess to any of us out there,” Larson said. “So yeah, we ran a good lap in our mock run today in practice, so I feel like I have a good shot at another pole tomorrow {Saturday). I would like to be better in race trim, but if we can get another pole it would be pretty cool.”

Larson is ranked 15th in the series driver standings – inside the top-16 cutoff to ultimately make the Playoffs – but with only an eight-point cushion over 17th place Ryan Newman. Larson is 14 points behind 14th place William Byron.

This weekend may well be a turning point for Larson. His season’s highs – such as earning his first All-Star Race victory – have been extraordinary, but his disappointments have been equally as resounding. Larson led a race best 143 laps at Atlanta, for example, but finished 12th.  And the perennial Playoff contender has as many DNFs as he does top-10s (four). His best effort of 2019 is third place at Dover in May. His last top 10 came a week after that – an eighth place run in Kansas.

Larson has never started worse than fifth in five Sonoma races, but has never finished better than 12th (2016). He’s hoping a new look for the track may translate into a new look for him after the race: sipping local wine in Victory Lane.

“I guess [it’s] not too frustrating with how our cars are running because I feel like our cars have been pretty good,” Larson said when asked about his season. “But as far as just bad luck or mistakes and things like that, that’s what’s been frustrating. But having a decently fast race car helps relieve some of that frustration.

“Kurt [Busch] has been running really good. I run pretty good most of the race and then kind of something seems to happen towards to the end. We’ve just got to clean up some things still and hopefully we can make the Playoffs and be hitting on all eight cylinders at the right time.”


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