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How Kyle Larson Sizes Up the Competition Heading into NASCAR’s Championship Race
In the hunt for his second title, Yung Money is preparing for a “tough battle” in Phoenix come November 5.
Laser-focused ahead of his second trip to the title race in Phoenix, at the tender age of just 31, Kyle Larson is the oldest of the Championship 4 but, while Yung Money isn’t sporting any wiry grays under his Hendrick Motorsports helmet, his experience as a former NASCAR Cup Series champion has provided him with some unique insight he’s using to prepare for his competition – Christopher Bell, William Byron and Ryan Blaney – of which only Bell has ventured into title territory before.
Widely seen as the favorite to take home the Bill France Cup, Larson scored four wins this season, of which none were more important than his Round of 8 victory during the South Point 400 in Las Vegas that catapulted him into the Championship 4.
Still, for a guy with an endless internal motor, no matter the surface he’s racing on, it hasn’t all been a smooth road to get him to this point. Sure, he’s led the most laps of any driver in the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season at 1127, nearly 150 more than Denny Hamlin in second place but, as Todd Gordon said on NASCAR’s Inside the Race, “it’s either checkers or wreckers” for Larson as he also owns the most DNF’s at eight, which is five more than Bell’s three, the next closest in that category.
Coupled with his previous experience as the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champ, all of the ups and downs along his journey to reach Phoenix have coalesced to bolster Larson’s chances by giving him an advantageous perspective he’s using to size up his fellow title contenders, specifically Ryan Blaney.
Now in his seventh Cup Series season, Blaney, who comes from a NASCAR family, scored a monumental, hard-fought victory during the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville, propelling Team Penske’s driver of the No. 12 Ford Mustang into his inaugural Championship 4 race.
After racing Blaney on the 0.526-mile oval in Virginia – the shortest of all courses in the Cup Series circuit – Larson caught up with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio where he spoke about going head-to-head against Blaney.
"I am excited to get there [Phoenix],” Larson told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I know it's gonna be a tough battle. Ryan [Blaney] is… Whatever their team has found in the last two and half months, they have done a really good job."
A really good job might be putting it modestly as Blaney hasn’t been spooked at all during the month of October, amassing four top-five performances down the stretch that includes victories at both Talladega and the aforementioned Martinsville.
"They have been probably the best team here lately,” he added. “So, they will be really tough to beat as well as Christopher [Bell] and William [Byron]. It's gonna be fun."
While Blaney may find himself squarely between Larson’s crosshairs, and Yung Money’s teammate William Byron is quickly establishing his credentials at Hendrick Motorsports – Byron does own the record for the most wins of the 2023 season with six – it’s perhaps Bell he should be the most worried about.
The baby-face motorist from Oklahoma who pilots the No. 20 Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing has been giving Larson headaches on the track long before he nearly edged out Yung Money in Sin City. Prior to their emergence in the Cup Series, the two drivers dauntlessly raced one another for years in small open-wheeled midget cars. That rivalry led to Bell scoring three consecutive wins at the annual Chili Bowl Nationals in Bell’s home state from 2017-2019, followed by Larson turning the tide to win back-to-back titles in 2020 and 2021.
As former teammates at Keith Kunz Motorsports, Larson says that, while it was frustrating to lose to the younger Bell, he learned to appreciate having someone who would challenge him on a consistent basis, forcing him to constantly refine his craft.
“He [Bell] kicked my butt for a few years straight, like every race,” detailed Larson, according to AP News. “I don’t know if I ever beat him. He made me work really hard to get better as a driver, especially on the dirt track stuff.”
“I don’t know how fans view it, [but] I really enjoy getting to race a guy in the Cup Series that when we were starting out racing with each other, neither of us were in the Cup Series,” added Larson.
Their relationship hit a rough patch in 2021 at the Watkins Glen road course when Larson spun Bell on Lap 55, birthing a public feud where they briefly exchanged barbs with Larson deflecting blame and Bell saying Larson “cried to the media.”
But that was then, and this is now. After capturing the checkered flag in Sin City, Larson had nothing but great things to say about Bell who was in hot pursuit of him down to the finish line.
“He’s always been a really fair, clean racer,” Larson said after the win, according to the AP. “We’ve had numbers and numbers of battles in stock cars, but mostly in dirt track. I’m typically the one that is the aggressor or the aggressive one in our battles. Probably push the limit of being dirty sometimes.”
“For him to continue to race me clean, I definitely have a ton of respect for him, always have,” continued Larson. “In my opinion, he’s one of the best race car drivers in the world.”
We’ll see if Larson still feels the same after the dynamic duo battle for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship in Phoenix, Arizona on November 5 on NBC.