Kyle Larson Is a World-Class Driver—but Sometimes That’s Not Enough to Win a NASCAR Championship

kyle larson, a finalist for the 2023 nascar cup series championship
Kyle Larson Is World Class, But That Is Not EnoughIllustration by Stephen Omark

In 2021, Kyle Larson won his first NASCAR Cup Series championship. He won 10 races that season—nearly a third of the schedule—and had to beat nearly 40 other top-level NASCAR drivers for each of them.

As Larson celebrated the day of, the championship felt real. These days, not so much.

“It's been two years,” Larson told Road & Track. “But as time has gone on, knowing how tough it is to win a championship in the Cup Series, I'll just be by myself or something, like: ‘Man, I really won. I can't believe that.’”

nascar cup series united rentals work united 500 practice
Meg Oliphant - Getty Images

This weekend, Larson has a chance to go for a second title. He’s part of the Cup Series’ “Championship Four”: the four drivers who survive NASCAR’s elimination-style playoffs to qualify for the title race, where they arrive at the mile-long Phoenix Raceway oval in November to race for the championship. More than 30 other cars are on track with them; they’re just the only ones left racing for the title. This year’s Championship Four is the youngest in history: Larson, 31; Ryan Blaney, 29; Christopher Bell, 28; and William Byron, 25.

Once those four get to Phoenix, their wins, points, and successes over the season can’t help them. The highest finisher in the Phoenix race alone wins the championship, meaning the leader off of turn four on the last lap can lose it in the final yards.

“I have a good feeling our car is going to be really fast,” Larson said. “Then it just comes down to executing the whole weekend: having a good practice Friday, having a good debrief with your team, and qualifying well. Then in the race, take it lap by lap. Try not to make any big mistakes. Hopefully the pit crew executes really well, which I'm confident my team will. Then just stay in contention so you have a shot.”

nascar cup series united rentals work united 500 practice
Meg Oliphant - Getty Images

People often debate where Larson ranks among the greatest drivers in the world—not only because of his dominant 2021 Cup season, but because he’s so successful in a variety of race cars. Next year, he’ll run the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s longest race, on the same day—racing 1,100 miles and flying from Indiana to North Carolina in between.

In 2022, the ESPYs named Larson “Best Driver” over Max Verstappen, who won this year’s Formula One title six races early. But modern NASCAR doesn’t allow drivers to win the championship early; the cutthroat elimination rounds in the playoffs produce underdogs and upsets, and even the best drivers over the course of the season can get eliminated before the championship race.

Larson has only made the Championship Four twice in nearly a decade of competing in Cup. The first was in 2021, when he won, and the second is this weekend. Even if Larson is one of the best drivers in the world, even he knows he may not make the Championship Four each year—and he knows it’s even harder to win it.

“Do I think the format is perfect?” Larson said. “No. But do I think it's really good and exciting? Yes, and I would say 90 percent of the champions that we've had with this format—potentially 100 percent—were the driver you thought would win the championship, or was the most deserving. The best teams still rise to the occasion.

“Your team, and you as a driver, have to execute when it matters in any other sport, too. Your champion isn't always the most dominant team throughout the year. It's the team who performs the best in the playoffs.”

nascar cup series united rentals work united 500
Meg Oliphant - Getty Images

NASCAR’s elimination-style playoffs are only a decade old. They’re sometimes criticized as less legitimate than a season-long points champion like other racing series have, and like NASCAR used to have. But NASCAR drivers know they’re all playing within the same rules—and ultimately, the team who plays them the best wins.

"I do think it's better than a season-long, grind-it-out kind of champion, where you could be crowning somebody with two or three races before the end of the year,” Larson said. “I'll say though, in 2021, I had that mindset of: ‘We're all playing by the same rules.’ But then with 50 laps to go, I was running fourth out of the four guys.

“I was like: ‘I can't believe I'm going to finish fourth in this championship after dominating the season.’ That was a bummer feeling, but then the caution came out, our pit crew did a great job, and the story ended how I felt like it should.”

nascar cup series championship qualifying
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This year, Larson qualified for the Championship Four two races early. That gave him more time to prepare for Phoenix over the tracks that came before it—a 1.5-mile oval called Homestead-Miami Speedway and the half-mile Martinsville Speedway short track—while his fellow playoff competitors had to focus on surviving those two.

But even with prep, Phoenix is tricky. Larson finished fourth at the track earlier this year, but Byron won the race, Blaney finished second, and Bell finished sixth.

“As you get closer to Phoenix, it's hard not to think about it,” Larson said. “I’ve been watching a lot of video, looking at data, and looking at my notes from earlier this year and last year, just trying to see where we were good and where we felt like we needed to improve. It’s easy for me to forget about what I felt back then, but we were really fast earlier this year.”

Larson said emotions during the NASCAR playoffs are more intense. A few weeks ago, he crashed during practice at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval and felt awful.

“I've had my fair share of highs and lows throughout the playoffs,” Larson said. “There’s so much on the line, so you probably feel the lows more than you do the highs. But for me, crashing at the Roval, that was as crappy as I've felt all year—because of the playoffs, but also because we had a home race, and the mechanics were probably looking forward to being with their families. Instead, they were working in the shop on a Saturday until 3 in the morning.

“I think sometimes in the middle of the summer, the playoffs feel like they're so far away. Not that you don't care, but you just don't put as much emphasis on every lap and every position like you do in the playoffs. Then we get to Phoenix, and it’s just one race to win the championship. There’s a different energy.”

nascar cup series championship
Sean Gardner - Getty Images

The only other time Larson made the final four, he won the title. Repeating that on Sunday would be just as special, but in a different way.

“For us, it's been such an up-and-down season,” Larson said. “Not necessarily on car speed, but results. This championship would be super meaningful to us and our team because we overcame so much adversity throughout the year, and we never lost focus on the end goal. Then winning a second Cup Series championship—there aren’t many drivers who've won more than one, so that would be special.

“I hope I don't ever experience being in the final four and not winning. I’m sure that feeling sucks.”

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