LOUDON, N.H. — At just 24 years old and full of youthful vigor, Kyle Larson embraces adversity. He’s no stranger to it, if the past week is any indication.
On Wednesday, the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet was docked 35 points for an illegal rear brake cooling assembly that aided him in a second-place finish at Kentucky Speedway on July 8. The penalty forced Larson to cede his slight grasp on the NASCAR Cup Series points lead to Martin Truex Jr., who had bested Larson in Kentucky.
A trip up north to New Hampshire didn’t change Larson’s fortunes. The No. 42 was fastest in Friday’s qualifying at 133.324 miles per hour, but NASCAR deemed Larson’s rear deck fin lid to be illegal, forcing him to the back of the 39-car field to begin Sunday’s Overton’s 301.
“For sure it seems like we have a target on our back,” Larson said.
But the youngster doesn’t let negative energy weigh him down.
“That [can be] a good thing too,” he said of NASCAR’s watchful eye. “It means everybody’s paying attention to us. It’s my fourth year and I’ve never been in a position where NASCAR and other teams are paying so much attention to our racecar, so that’s a compliment to everybody at our race shop.”
Larson continued to flaunt his unfazed demeanor Sunday, weaving through cars in front of him with an effortless air en route to a second-place finish in the Overton’s 301.
Larson finished just 0.509 seconds behind winner Denny Hamlin, passing Matt Kenseth with 25 laps to go and cutting down what was once a comfortable gap between first and second place.
But Larson was unable to navigate lap traffic in his final trips around the NHMS track.
“I was catching [Hamlin] a couple 10ths of a lap there, and then it seemed like when I got kind of close, within four or five car lengths at the end, my lap times kind of evened off a little bit with him,” Larson said. “I started getting too tight on exit. I’d gain a lot on him on entry but I couldn’t keep the power down and keep the front turning on exit there that last run.”
Though Larson’s performance didn’t result in a trip to victory lane, it was indicative of a driver whose sheer talent is far greater than his age would indicate. The California native now has notched 12 top-10 finishes in a career-defining 2017 season.
Larson spent the early parts of Sunday’s race on the track’s inside lane, making up for his poor starting position by taking advantage of the VHT chemical on the racing surface. He took advantage of a strong pit road exit after a competition caution on Lap 35 and finished third in the race’s first stage.
“In the beginning of the race when the VHT was down pretty heavy there, I thought I could get underneath people fairly easy and quickly,” Larson said of the traction agent. “Then towards the end, [I] kind of moved down out of the VHT and was able to run like your normal Loudon line and find a lot of grip and speed there. [It] seemed like nobody else could really run there like I could.”
In the past, Larson has struggled with New Hampshire’s short, flat track, finding it difficult to do what he does so well: pass. Sunday, he had no such issues.
“In the past here at Loudon, you kind of just run the same line all race long,” he said. “It hasn’t been one of my favorite racetracks because it is so one lane, but today I thought there was a lot of different lanes you could run, and it was all because of the [VHT] they put on the track. I thought that was a really cool thing.”
The prized possession of Chip Ganassi Racing trails Truex by 38 points in the point standings, and will continue to take whatever the 2017 season throws at him in stride.
“Another hard-fought race,” Larson said. “This is the third time we’ve had to start last and drove up to second. I wish we could have been a spot better again, but [I’m] really proud of my team and proud of the cars that they’re bringing for me to drive each and every week.”Owen Pence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.