RICHMOND, Va. — Kyle Larson, a driver who made his name racing dirt tracks across the country, had not been able to duplicate that type of prowess in a NASCAR Cup car on an asphalt short track.
And while he wasn’t dominant at all Saturday night in winning the Federated Auto Parts 400, the fact he was in position to capitalize on the opportunity shows the strength and talent of Larson and his Chip Ganassi Racing team.
Larson led 53 laps Saturday night, taking the lead for good on pit road before the green-white-checkered finish. He got a solid restart — not always his forte — and outlasted the field.
“I’m not a very good short-track racer, so for us to come here and challenge for the win and get the win, it feels great,” Larson said. “Hopefully we can carry this momentum off into the playoffs and make it through the three rounds … to make it to Homestead and go for the championship.
“I feel like I’d have a really good shot there this year.”
With just one short-track race in the playoffs (there will be two next year when Richmond moves to the second race of the first round), Larson doesn’t need to rely on short-track skills to win the title. All four of his previous Cup wins came at 2-mile tracks: Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Cailornia, and Michigan International Speedway.
Larson has finished in the top five in 30 percent of his races on tracks 1- to 2-miles in length. Going into Richmond, he had just two top-5s in 22 starts (nine percent) on short tracks.
But this victory at the 0.75-mile Richmond could mean something when he goes to other tracks where he has struggled, such as the 0.526-mile Martinsville Speedway and the 1.058-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“Richmond and Martinsville are probably my worst race tracks, and you can throw Loudon [New Hampshire] in there, too,” Larson said. “I know I’ve got some good finishes there and ran really strong there early in the year, but historically these style of tracks don’t suit me.”
The sprint-car ace has never been able to find the rhythm on short tracks, and for good reason. He is used to, on dirt tracks, taking what the track gives him and finding the best lane. In a NASCAR Cup car, there often is one preferred groove where a driver must be solid.
“I know everybody says I grew up short track racing, but this is way different than sprint-car racing on a short track,” Larson said. “This is really, really slow, heavy braking, off the throttle a lot, taking care of your tires, where sprint car on a quarter mile you’re still wide open a lot of times, depending on how the track is.
“This is different, and I’ve had to learn a lot. I feel like I’ve definitely gotten better at it. I can go really fast on the short runs and stuff at all these shorter flat tracks, but it seems like I struggle on the long run, which I did tonight. But it came down to a short run, and we got the win.”
Xfinity Series: Composite bodies and playoff run
Xfinity experimented with composite bodies at Richmond, and few drivers could tell a difference.
That was a good thing for NASCAR as the Xfinity drivers were in their next-to-last regular-season race.
In the playoffs with wins are William Byron, Justin Allgaier, Ryan Reed and Jeremy Clements. Drivers who have locked in by points are Elliott Sadler, Daniel Hemric, Brennan Poole, Cole Custer and Matt Tifft.
That leaves three spots available on points. Blake Koch has a 51-point cushion on the first driver out (Dakoda Armstrong), while Michael Annett has a 26-point cushion and Brendan Gaughan a 25-point cushion. Armstrong is the only driver on the outside looking in who could rally and make it on points.
“I couldn’t tell a difference [with the car],” Gaughan said. “It’s a race car. It don’t matter. As long as the fans think it looks the same — not one thing was different from my standpoint.
“We’ll see how they held up. We’ll go back and see how the fiberglass held up and all that stuff worked. If it worked well, it’s a good deal.”
Sadler, who clinched the regular-season title, said the car sounded and smelled different.
The race at Richmond, won by Brad Keselowski, was the last for Cup drivers with more than five years experience. They are not allowed in the regular-season finale nor the playoffs.
Camping World Truck Series: Playoff picture
The trucks also enter their regular-season finale this weekend at Chicagoland.
Seven of the eight spots in the playoffs have been set. Christopher Bell, Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton, John Hunter Nemechek, Austin Cindric and Kaz Grala are in with wins. Chase Briscoe is in on points.