Same mission but narrower margins for Larson as NASCAR enters playoffs

While the scenario isn’t quite the same, Kyle Larson again enters the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs as the guy 15 others are trying to take down.

But last year, it was because Larson was the clear favorite for the championship. Larson entered the postseason having dominated the first 26 races and with plenty of playoff points to fall back on (52).

On Sunday at Darlington Raceway (6 pm ET), Larson might be among the favorites, but he’s not a runaway. Larson is the fourth seed with 19 playoff points. However, the goal on his back comes from being the defending series champion the field is eager to dethrone.

“I haven’t given it much thought,” Larson said of his position and the difference in bonus points. “It already adds a little more pressure every race, knowing that you need to get stage points, stage wins, race wins, all of that, to help in your post-regular season.

“This first round prepares very well for us and our team. [with] three really great tracks for us. I think it’s a good opportunity for us to put in some good showings, get some playoff points and try to put ourselves in a better spot as we get closer to the next few rounds.”

Larson’s once-in-a-lifetime championship season in 2021 marked the first time he had made it through each of the playoff rounds to compete in the title race. His postseason was as incredible as his regular season, with five wins from 10 races (Bristol, Charlotte, Texas, Kansas and Phoenix) and only two finishes outside the top 10 (37th at Talladega and 14th at Martinsville).

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One might think his 2021 run brought valuable experience, but Larson pointed to his Round of 8 appearance in 2019. That season, Larson made the playoffs on points and then won at Dover to advance to the third round. But an engine failure two weeks later at Kansas Speedway ended his playoff run, which at the time had been the furthest Larson had ever gone.

“That experience, I don’t remember, probably taught me more and prepared me more for the playoffs this year,” Larson said. “Last year, it’s not often that a driver has so many points. I know [Kevin] Harvick has done it in the past, but where you have a lot of points, and you can rely on those points and not go into every race with the stress of crashing or something bad happening. Or if he does, you’re not in terrible shape yet.

“I think in the second round last year, we had a bad Talladega. Then we had an alternator problem on the Roval [but won the race], and I was stressed. Where I would have been really stressed if we had the bad race at Talladega, just that one itself. I dont know; just go out and run and try to run up front the whole race and that should put you in a good spot.”

Larson has two wins in his pocket as he begins his title defense and has led 307 laps. But his No. 5 team also has six DNFs that have contributed to an average finish of 14.3. While those issues aren’t something Larson is ignoring, the champion is focused on what the team is fully capable of now in the most crucial part of the year.

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“I think our regular season didn’t go very well, by our standards,” Larson said. “But I really don’t know if anybody… for Chase (Elliott), like, I don’t even know if his regular season was up to his standards. There was a lot of inconsistency this year during the regular season. We had three blown engines in the regular season, a lot of DNFs with that, but also mistakes on my part or bad pit stops. Yeah, we got a couple wins, which was good, but we probably gave a couple away as well.

“I would say no, it was not good. But I still feel like we’re ready for the playoffs. I feel like here lately, our pit crew has performed well, our cars have been fast all year. Cliff (Daniels, crew chief) and our guys have been making good calls at the top of the box. I’m doing a little better job of taking what I can get out of the race car and not overdoing it. So I feel like we’re ready. We just have to hope that everything works out, and this is the time of year for that. I know we have a champion-caliber team, we showed that last year, and we just have to do it again.”

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