Kyle Larson keeps knocking on door, but not looking to kick it in

ByBOB POCKRASS
May 28, 2016, 7:06 PM

— -- CONCORD, N.C. -- Kyle Larson's runner-up finishes the past two weeks at Dover and in the Sprint All-Star Race have the top drivers in the sport saying he has great talent, races with respect and will win soon.

If a fan reads that and wonders, "Haven't I read that before?" that fan would be right. After Larson finished second to Kyle Busch at Auto Club Speedway in March 2014, he was atop everyone's list as the next first-time Cup winner and the next great thing after just nine Cup races.

Larson has heard it all, too. He thinks this go-around has a better chance of coming to fruition as he sits 0-for-87 in his Sprint Cup career heading into the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he starts 24th for NASCAR's longest race of the season.

"When I ran second at Fontana, I wasn't that good," Larson said Thursday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I didn't run up front the whole race. When it's that early in your Sprint Cup career, you don't know, really know, if it's for real or if it's going to happen again.

"Where now I feel like I am fast enough, talented enough, our team is good enough, whatever you want to call it, to run up front more often. I guess it's a little bit different [now]."

With new crew chief Chad Johnston in 2016, Larson said he has a new fleet of Chip Ganassi Racing cars coming to go with the new cars he has run in recent weeks. He challenged Matt Kenseth in the final laps at Dover and then lost the lead with two laps to go to Joey Logano in the All-Star Race.

Still, it isn't like he has led races galore. Larson has led more than 10 laps in just four races in his career and of his 263 career laps led, his 90 laps led at Bristol in April 2015 and 85 laps led at Dover two weeks ago make up the bulk of his races where he appeared as a favorite to challenge for the win.

"I feel like I keep letting my guys down," Larson said. "But thanks to them and everybody at the race shop. ... It's been fun recently to run up front and contend for wins. I've got to figure out how to do it."

The 23-year-old Larson was projected by many to already have won by now. But he has come up short to even make the Chase for the Sprint Cup his first two seasons, finishing 17th in the standings in 2014 (the top driver not in the Chase) and 19th in 2015.

A slow start in 2016 has him 21st in the standings, 40 points out of the current Chase cutoff with 14 races left in the regular season.

"Not trying to take away anything from Ganassi, but when you take a talent like Kyle Larson's, I think he would have won by now at some other organizations," said Fox broadcaster and Hendrick Motorsports equity owner Jeff Gordon, the recently retired four-time Sprint Cup champion. "Those guys have let him down, but I've been seeing something that's good lately."

Gordon said in 2015 and in the start of 2016, Larson didn't appear as if he would win. But he has seen such a huge turnaround in the past month.

"They've been extremely competitive recently," Gordon said. "Kyle has been driving the wheels off it. I don't think anybody has had any bigger gain in fan appeal and popularity as Kyle has in the last three weeks. It's been impressive."

The accolades don't only come from retired drivers. Kenseth and Logano sang Larson's praises after recent races where they held off the pesky Larson.

"He's a heck of a racer," Logano said. "He's going to win a lot of races, that's for sure. It's fun to race against him."

Kenseth takes a similar view and indicated he thought Larson would have won by now.

"He's a great race car driver," Kenseth said. "To me it doesn't even seem right that he hasn't won yet.

"He's got a bunch of victories in front of him for sure. He's a really, really clean, hard racer, and a fast learner."

Larson, like any young driver, appreciates hearing those comments. He felt he raced those drivers hard but clean. He feels like he did all he could do racing Kenseth and in some ways lost it to Logano, whom he said did everything right to get by him. He did have a little bit of a consolation victory, capturing the exhibition Sprint Showdown last-chance qualifying race to get into the all-star event by banging doors with Chase Elliott to the finish.

Some would suggest that Larson should have raced rougher to get a Cup win -- that he could have roughed up Kenseth at Dover -- but Larson has not second-guessed himself about the way he raced Kenseth. He said Kenseth's wrecking Logano in retaliation last year had no bearing on how hard he would race Kenseth.

"I raced Kenseth good because he raced me good," Larson said. "I would hope he would race me the same way I would race him. I have all the respect in the world for Matt Kenseth. I think he is one of the best race car drivers in the garage so that's why I raced him that way."

Larson has watched the end of the Dover race to see what he could learn about his inability to get by Kenseth there late in the race. He hasn't watched the end of the all-star race where Logano was able to get by.

"Sometimes it hurts to watch," he said.

If Larson is feeling the pressure, he doesn't show it. He quipped that compared to two years ago that he's a "smarter racer for sure, [but] it might not look like that sometimes."

"Yes [there's more pressure] because I'm three years into my career in the Cup Series and haven't won and no because our team hasn't been considered a winning team for years," Larson said. "I don't know. ... I don't really get into pressure too much."

But he would like to win. He won 22 feature races in 2011 in various national sprint-car events. He doesn't feel he's forgotten how to win or translate that success into a stock car, where he has three Xfinity Series career victories and one truck triumph.

"You don't forget how to win," Larson said. "This sport is so tough so it's nice when you go run a sprint car and go win a race. That stuff is extremely tough, too, but it's nice to remind yourself that you can win. ... I definitely believe I can win and hopefully will win.

"I just want to get it done soon so I can stop hearing it and can go to sleep at night knowing that I've won in the toughest form of American auto racing."

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