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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup

In-Depth Look: Can Kyle Larson Defy Odds and Win the Championship?

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The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs officially eclipsed the halfway point when Ryan Blaney captured his first win of the season at Talladega Superspeedway last weekend.

Astonishingly, Blaney was the only playoff driver to not get involved in any sort of incident at the famed superspeedway. Only three playoff drivers were able to walk away with a top-10 finish and being that Blaney was ranked 12th in the standings entering Talladega, this shook up the week six playoff rankings drastically.

The only driver able to take the green flag at the Alabama-based track without any pressure was Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson. Larson snapped at 75-race winless streak when he won two weeks prior at Dover International Speedway (and boy, did he need it after finishing 39th at Talladega).

After the Round of 16 delivered back-to-back victories from Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott‘s third win  of the season, the Round of 12 has proven to be the complete opposite. Both Blaney and Larson picked up their first wins of 2019, and made dramatic jumps in the playoff standings. Larson sat just one point above the cutoff line before winning at Dover, while Blaney entered Talladega last in the playoff standings.

While both drivers had been deemed underdogs and essentially non-factors when the playoffs began, the pair are now locked into the Round of 8 – and now seems like the time to start taking both drivers seriously. More specifically, Larson and his No. 42 crew.

When the driver from Elk Grove, California began his first full-time campaign in the Cup Series in 2014, he entered the sport hot and determined. It seemed as if every week the driver of the No. 42 was in contention for the win and rattling off multiple second-place finishes. Five year later and Larson’s career can be defined in one word: average.

Prior to his win at Dover two weeks ago, the 27-year old had only managed to drive his way to five wins. He did, however, race his way to 53 top-fives and 95 top-10 finishes. These are great accomplishments, but when a driver like Larson enters the sport the way he did, there must be an emphasis on winning and being in contention for championships.

Larson has only advanced to the Round of 8 once in his career (2017) and ended up finishing eighth. The semi-final round has not been kind to the driver of the No. 42 due to the trio to tracks it entails – Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motorspeedway and ISM Raceway (Phoenix).

It doesn’t help that heavy-hitters such as Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick excel at these tracks, but the 2019 playoffs have proven to be a challenge for some of the superstars at the halfway point. With a handful of the Cup Series veterans having massive difficulties thus far in the post-season, this could be Larson’s best shot at winning a championship.

This is the final year that the season finale will be held at Homestead-Miami Speedway – arguably Larson’s best track. For the No. 42 crew, they must push the boundaries like they never have before in order to advance to the final round of the playoffs, because should Larson make it to Miami, he could be the clear favorite to win the championship.

But just how difficult is Larson’s road ahead?

Photo Courtesy of Racing Virginia

Martinsville Speedway

Let’s begin with the half-mile oval of Martinsville, which is Larson’s worst statistical track on the circuit. The California-native posted a third-place finish at the Virginia-based track back in the Spring of 2016. Since then, his best finish has been 14th (Fall of 2016) with an overall average of 23.64. It should also be noted that he placed 37th in both of the last Fall races at Martinsville.

Larson’s lackluster performances at the half-mile track can be chalked up to two things – ow speeds and minimal banking. It’s almost impossible to watch a race and not see that No. 42 Camaro right up against the wall, using every inch of the the track and car. Martinsville’s banking varies from zero to 12 degrees and the top speed posted in the Spring was just shy of 98 mph; so it should come as no surprise that someone like Larson doesn’t typically perform well here.

On the contrary, these results are slightly skewed due to an engine failure and an accident which landed Larson those unfortunate 37th place finishes. It will be interesting to see if the No. 42 can stay out of trouble at this short track, because this is the one that’s proven to be most difficult for him coming up in the semi-final round.

He’ll also have compete with Brad Keselowski, Busch and Truex Jr., who have been the class of the field at Martinsville as of late. While Busch has been the more dominant of the trio, he’s been incredibly underwhelming in the playoffs.

Busch currently has the worst average finishing position out of all 12 playoff drivers with 16.6 and there could be some serious cause for concern. The driver of the M&Ms Camry has been overly agitated each week (even more so than normal) and things just don’t seem to be clicking for the No. 18 team. Simply, if Busch had not had the stellar regular season that he did, he could be in danger of missing the Round of 8. Busch is one of those heavy-hitters currently slumping and if Larson can capitalize on Busch’s struggles, it can really pay dividends in the end.

Keselowski has been fairly silent throughout the playoffs , but the 2012 Cup Series champion boasts an average finish of 9.6 through the five races. The one downside for the driver of the No. 2 is that he currently sits seventh in the standings and should another new winner be crowned at Kansas Speedway, he could get knocked out of the Round of 8. This would be another game-changer should the Michigan-native not advance.

Larson’s biggest feat at Martinsville should be the driver of the No. 19. Truex Jr. has an average finish of 6.6 over the last five races at Martinsville and he’s also won two out of the five short track events this season. He’s been scorching hot in the playoffs posting an average finish of 7.4 with two wins thus far.

Photo Courtesy of Fox News

Texas Motor Speedway

Texas Motor Speedway should be an intriguing one for Larson. He captured his best career finish  of second in the Spring of 2017. Since then, he’s been involved in an accident in every race at Texas aside from the 2018 Fall race in which he placed fifth. The Fort Worth-based track is indeed one of those high speed, high banked tracks where you can run the car against the wall – but the question is, can Larson stay out of trouble?

Harvick has owned Texas over the last five races, garnering two wins, four top-fives and five top-10s with an outstanding average finish of 3.2. He’s also been the hottest driver in the playoffs posting an average of 6.6. He may not have a win in the playoffs yet, but looking ahead to Texas and Phoenix, this should be Larson’s fiercest competitor in the Round of 8 along with Truex.

2018 Cup Series Champion Joey Logano has been great at Texas as of late. He has an average finish of 7.2 with two top-fives and four top-10’s. However, the Team Penske driver is another one of those superstars who has not been providing in the playoffs. The defending series champion has an average finish of 15th and is currently eighth in the standings, 18 points above the cutoff. Ryan Newman took an 18 point lead into Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval and ended up missing the round of 12, so Logano should feel anything but comfortable heading to Kansas.

Courtesy of ABC15

ISM Raceway

Finally, we have ISM Raceway in Avondale, Arizona. Larson has finished inside of the top-10 at Phoenix in the last two races, posting a sixth-place finish in the Spring. Phoenix is one of those tracks where the opportunities to run different lines and play strategy is seemingly endless.

While Phoenix is one of Larson’s better tracks, two of the sport’s active drivers are the greatest of all time on the one-mile tri-oval – Busch and Harvick. Both drivers have been deemed “King of the Desert” at some point in their respected careers.

Harvick is the winningest driver all time at ISM Raceway with nine wins and an average finish of 9.3. Over the last five races, Harvick has averaged a 5.2, which includes one win, three top-fives and five top-10s. Notably, he finished ninth in the Spring.

Busch has been the class of the field at Phoenix over the last few years. He is currently riding a two-race win streak at the diamond in the desert with an absurd average finish of 2.8 in the last five events with no results outside the top-seven in that span. However, it was announced a new tire compound will be applied to the semi-final race; this should be a great test to see if anyone can dethrone the driver of the No. 18.

It should also be noted that Truex is ranked third-best at the Arizona track and posted a track-best second in the Spring. The driver of the No. 19 has an average finish of seventh over the last five races there. He should currently be considered more of a threat to Larson’s bid for a win at Phoenix than Busch.

In reference to the Round of 8, it should also be taken into consideration that Elliott is currently ranked 10th, 22 points under the cutline and on pace to miss the semi-final round. This is important because Elliott runs incredibly well at all three of these tracks  and that would be one more driver in addition to possibly Busch, Logano or Keselowski that Larson would not have to worry about. The bottom line is at least one of the sport’s most dominant drivers throughout the 2019 season will miss out on the round of eight.

Overall, the road ahead for Larson will prove to be challenging, but not impossible. With Larson having shown no signs of strength at the Virginia short track, there should be an inherent emphasis on performing well at Martinsville.

Texas and Phoenix are both tracks where Larson has run well, but it’s just a matter of staying  out of trouble and being in contention with Harvick and Truex. The two drivers have clearly been the class of the field halfway through the playoffs and if the 27-year old wants to make a serious attempt at a championship campaign, he  will likely have to go through those former champions.

Should Larson make it to Homestead, the same sentiments can be said. The only driver better than Larson at the Miami-based track is Harvick. The driver of the No. 4 has one win (2014), 10 top-fives and 16 top-10s in 18 races with an average finish of 6.56. He has also not placed worse than fourth in the last five races there.

So why pick Larson at Homestead? In just six races, he has a led 325 laps. To put that in perspective, that ranks him third in most laps led all time at Homestead only behind Busch and Harvick who’ve both ran 12 races more than the 27-year old. In addition to laps led, Larson has an average finish of 8.5 along with three top-fives and three top-10s in the six races he’s run there.

While this is a small sample size from the California-native, he is always the first driver in the garage area that the field is looking to set pace with for the weekend. Larson is able to run right up against the wall with ease and always appears to be going two miles per hour faster than his competitors.

This is the final season that the championship race will be held at Homestead-Miami Speedway. With drivers such as Busch, Keselowski, Logano and Elliott in danger of missing the next round, this could be Larson’s best shot at becoming the 2019 Cup Series Champion. Only time will tell if this dirt-track racing prodigy has what it takes to propel himself to victory in the last five races.

EMAIL COLE AT: colecusumano88@gmail.com

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Cole Cusumano

Cole Cusumano is currently attending The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication for a degree in sports journalism. In addition to providing content for POPULAR SPEED, he worked for Pit Notes at ISM Raceway. He is also currently writing for the school's magazine "The Cronkite Journal", which is affiliated with Arizona PBS. Cole was born and raised in Staten Island, N.Y. but has been living in Arizona for 13 years.