While the scenario is not exactly the same, Kyle Larson again enters the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs as the guy 15 others are trying to knock off the perch.
But last year, it was because Larson was the clear championship favorite. 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 p.m. ET, USA), Larson might be amongst the favorites, but it’s not a runaway. Larson is seeded fourth with 19 playoff points. The target on his back, however, comes from his being the defending series champion that the field is eager to dethrone.
“I haven’t put much thought into it,” Larson said of his position and the difference in bonus points. “It already adds a little bit more pressure on each race, knowing that you need to go get stage points, stage wins, race wins, all of that, to help out your post-regular season.
“This first round sets up really nice for us and our team [with] three really great tracks for us. I think it’s a good opportunity for us to have a good few showings, get some playoff points, and try to put ourselves in a better spot as we approach the next couple of rounds.”
The once-in-a-lifetime championship season Larson had in 2021 was the first time he’d made it through each of the playoff rounds to compete in the title race. His postseason was just as unbelievable as his regular season, with five wins in 10 races (Bristol, Charlotte, Texas, Kansas and Phoenix) and only two finishes outside the top 10 (37th at Talladega and 14th at Martinsville).
One might think his ’21 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 it – probably taught me more and prepared me more for this year’s playoffs,” Larson said. “Last year, it’s not often that a driver has that 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 each race with some stress of crashing or having something bad happen. Or if it does, you’re still not in terrible shape.
“I think the second round last year, we had a bad Talladega. Then we had an alternator issue at the Roval [but won the race], and I was stressed out. Where I would have been really stressed out if we had the bad race at Talladega, just that one itself. I don’t know; just go out there, execute and try to run up front all race long and that should hopefully put you in an OK spot.”
Larson has two wins in his pocket as his title defense begins and has led 307 laps. But his No. 5 team also has six DNFs that have contributed to a 14.3 average finish. While those issues aren’t something Larson is ignoring, the champion is focused on what the team is fully capable of doing now in the most crucial part of the year.
“I think our regular season didn’t go very well, to our standards,” said Larson. “But I don’t really know if anybody… for Chase (Elliott), like, I don’t even know if his regular season was up to their standards. There was just a lot of inconsistency this year throughout 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. Yes, we got a couple of wins, which was nice, but we also probably gave away a couple, as well.
“I would say no, it wasn’t good. But I do still feel like we are prepared for the playoffs. I feel like here lately, our pit crew has been performing well, our cars have been fast all year long. Cliff (Daniels, crew chief) and our guys have been making good calls on top of the box. I’m doing a little bit better job of taking what I can get out of the race car and not overstepping things. So, I feel like we’re prepared. We just have to hope that everything comes together, and this is the time of the year for that. I know we have a championship-caliber team, we proved that last year, and we just have to do it again.”