<
>

Kyle Larson gets to Victory Lane the right way

play
Craven on Larson: 'I can't think of five drivers better right now' (1:40)

Ricky Craven says despite being late to clinch a spot in the Chase after getting his first win in 99 career Sprint Cup starts, Kyle Larson could be a legitimate threat come playoff time. (1:40)

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Kyle Larson maybe could have won his first Sprint Cup race in just his ninth start. He could have pulled a super-aggressive move on Kyle Busch and go checkers-or-wreckers at California at that race in March 2014.

If he had taken that chance and somehow made a desperate move work, he wouldn't have had to answer questions over the next 89 races about when would he win his first Cup race since coming on the scene.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver also could have won in race 88 at Dover in May if he roughed up Matt Kenseth. He settled for second again, the fourth time he finished second in a Cup race.

But Larson wanted a noble win. He didn't want any questions. He wanted to have the respect of the racers who have shown respect to him.

He never even seemed all that upset about it. He just went on to the next race as he has throughout his career. Larson never appeared flustered about anything, even after it was his race car that was ripped apart in a 2013 Xfinity Series crash at Daytona International Speedway and injured dozens of fans.

The 24-year-old either has ice in his veins or knew a day such as Sunday at Michigan International Speedway would come along. It was a day where it appeared he would finish second to another driver looking for his first Sprint Cup win as Chase Elliott led the previous 22 laps before a restart with nine laps remaining in the Pure Michigan 400.

On the restart, Larson got a good push from Brad Keselowski -- Larson had the lead before Elliott could get to the start-finish line -- and never looked back.

And then came the tears in the car. Plus a couple minutes of screams after he passed the checkered flag. All those comments about what he should have done when don't matter anymore. They are behind Larson, like much of the dirt that he has sprayed in winning a slew of sprint-car races before making the move to NASCAR.

"I started shaking, [my] legs a little numb there for a couple laps," Larson said. "I think with two to go, I was starting to get choked up.

"We worked really, really hard to get a win, and just haven't done it. Finally all the hard work by everybody, hundreds of people at our race shop, people who have got me through to the Cup Series, it was all paying off."

Some of that hard work could have been rewarded in previous stops at Michigan. In June 2015, he pitted shortly before NASCAR called the race because of rain. Last June, Joey Logano -- a veteran at 26-years old -- beat the 20-year-old Elliott and Larson to the finish line.

Elliott and Larson then battled it out again Sunday, leaving Elliott -- the driver who replaced Jeff Gordon this year -- with the bitter disappointment and frustration once again while Larson celebrated.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't [feeling that way]," Elliott said about being disappointed and frustrated. "If I wasn't, that would mean I didn't care. ... There's no guarantees in life.

"There's certainly no guarantees in racing."

Even some of those pulling for Elliott could appreciate it for Larson, recognizing the path that created such an emotional postrace celebration.

"It's bittersweet today because I'm a huge Kyle fan," said Gordon, an equity owner in Hendrick. "I love that guy. He's an amazing talent.

"But he beat the 24 [car] today. I was pulling for Chase. ... The first thing I was thinking when I saw Chase and I was looking out at Larson, these two are going to be doing this a lot throughout their careers. That's great for the sport."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., watching from home as he missed his sixth consecutive race because of a concussion, tweeted his congratulations to Larson even after he beat his teammate: "Always liked his driving style and the person he is outside the car. Well deserved."

Maybe the one who appreciated it the most was another racer looking to snap a winless streak. Chip Ganassi put his faith in Larson, seeing him as the next great talent, signing him in February 2012 and tapping him to replace Juan Pablo Montoya in 2014.

Ganassi's last win in Cup had come 100 races earlier. The car owner had won races in five other motorsports series this year, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans but hadn't won a Cup race since Jamie McMurray in October 2013.

"When he came to our team, people said, 'Well, he'll hang around for a couple years, then he'll go to a team where he can win,' " Ganassi said. "That wasn't the case at all. ... To say he's the foundation of the team? Anytime you have a young guy come along that can win, sure, you want to rally around that.

"It takes a lot of things these days to build your team and keep your team together. A day like today goes a long way to be that mortar in between all the bricks that keeps everything pulled together. It's a big day."

With Larson the foundation of the team's future -- Ganassi doesn't talk about the contract status of his drivers but the indications are Larson is signed beyond this season -- both Ganassi and Larson said they don't see him going anywhere.

"I owe everything to him for why I'm here today," Larson said. "I was just racing sprint cars and midgets in 2011 in Indiana. ... I have a ton of respect for [the team] and love racing for the organization.

"I kind of like being the underdog, I guess you can say. Our team isn't up there, isn't considered with Hendrick or Penske or Gibbs. We're right below them. But I like that. I think everybody at our race shop likes that. I think it kind of drives them to work harder and push the limits of building faster race cars."

The knock on Larson was that he couldn't put a full race together, that as a sprint-car driver used to shorter feature events, that he didn't have the mentality to win the marathon-like Sprint Cup affairs or to do what he needed to do to win.

"If anyone is saying that about him, they don't know what they're talking about," said Larson teammate Jamie McMurray.

Larson has probably heard every reason why he hasn't won. He expressed his relief in the only way a racer knows how -- with a huge, epic burnout in celebration of his win, a win that came 21 days since the death of his friend and fellow sprint-car racer Bryan Clauson.

"It's good to be able to 'parked it' in Victory Lane, like [Clauson] would have said," Larson said. "He didn't like people doing burnouts and stuff like that because he wanted you to act like you've been to Victory Lane before.

"But I hadn't been to Victory Lane before. So I was going to do some burnouts."

It easily could be said that he earned the right to do burnouts, even if it tore up his own car a little bit. He had spared some other potential race-winning cars that type of damage by being the gentleman racer and earning his first win -- and a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth -- with no questions about whether he deserved it.

"The way my rookie season started, coming close a few times, not getting it done, you can visualize the win that early in your career: It's going to happen, it's going to happen," Larson said. "But it just never happened.

"This one's different just because of how long we had to wait and how much harder I've had to work for it. It's special because all the hard work's paid off."