It was nearly one year ago that Kyle Larson strolled into Kansas City, Kan., full of optimism. He sat in third place in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff standings, a championship within reach.
And then: Disaster.
Engine failure at Kansas Speedway erased a sizable 29-point cushion and eliminated him from the playoffs.
Some 364 days later, he’s back where it all went wrong. With another opportunity to advance in the playoffs.
This one will be a bit more challenging. Larson, 26, enters Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on the outside of the bubble. And he’s quite a ways outside — essentially placing him in a must-win scenario to keep his championship hopes alive. Larson is 26 points behind the eighth and final advancing place, but winning drivers are guaranteed one of the spots in the next round.
“I definitely think we have to go there and win,” Larson said in a phone interview with The Star this week. “But I’m actually kind of excited to go there and know what we have to do. The two previous years that I’ve been knocked out of the playoffs, each of the rounds I’ve gotten knocked out in, I felt like we were pretty safe to make it through to the next one.
“At least this week we know what we have to do. I’m kind of excited for that opportunity.”
It comes on a track in which Larson says he’s quite comfortable, last fall’s race notwithstanding. With valid reasoning. Larson has finished top-six in two of his last three races in Kansas.
The resume could have been even better. He led for 101 laps during the spring race earlier this year and won the middle stage. A late crash necessitated a rally to finish fourth. The winner of the race, Kevin Harvick, credited Larson with the fastest car that day.
“Kansas suits our team very well,” Larson said. “I feel like we do pretty good with the smooth, high-grip tracks. Also, at Kansas, you can get going right around the walls. Any time we can run the top, that suits my driving style. I’m pretty confident for this weekend and confident anytime we go to Kansas.”
It just hasn’t yet equated to what he needs Sunday afternoon.
Larson had four wins in 2017, a seemingly breakthrough season, though none were in Kansas. The ensuing year has been defined by some transitions, including his car, which is now the No. 42 Chevrolet Camaro. He is yet to win a race in 2018, but nine top-five finishes have kept him alive in the second round of the playoffs.
He might have more room for error Sunday had he not endured what he called an “embarrassing” weekend at Talladega, where he finished 11th. Even so, no driver has accumulated more points without a win than the 3,057 from Larson. It’s not exactly a statistic any driver wants to own.
But he does have one more shot to change it.
“We’ve been close to getting wins there before,” Larson said. “Just gotta hope it all comes together this weekend, and we have a very good race and execute well and put ourselves in a spot at the end of the race to get a win.”