Remember way back to the second race of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season at Auto Club Speedway when Kyle Larson threw a late-race block on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott that angered the 2020 champion but opened the door for the 2021 champion to score the win in Fontana, California.
Consider this- had Larson not thrown the block then gone on to win that race, he would be outside the NASCAR Playoffs bubble as the time for the cutoff approaches. That’s right, the driver who won ten races and the championship in 2021 would not even be in a position to qualify for the Playoffs if not for that one victory.
After a year in which it felt like the No. 5 Chevrolet was the favorite going into every race, Larson is not going to come close to the type of numbers he posted last year.
This past weekend’s event on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the 22nd race of the 2022 season. After that same number of races last year, Larson was second in the series standings just 13 points behind leader Denny Hamlin. The Elk Grove, California native had already amassed four wins up to this point in the 2021 season.
Currently, Larson sits 5th in the NASCAR Cup Series standings with that lone win in Fontana to his credit. He is 154 points behind leader Elliott.
Larson and his Cliff Daniels led crew are not having a bad season by most measures. However, the bar they set for themselves last year is a difficult one to reach but it might cause some observers to question why things aren’t going as well as last season.
The NASCAR Series is just four events away from the start of the NASCAR Playoffs. Now is the time for potential championship contenders, including the HMS No. 5 operation, to start building momentum. This team is not doing that at this time.
In the last four races, Larson has recorded finishes of 13th in Atlanta, 14th at New Hampshire, 5th at Pocono and 35th following nasty looking crash last weekend on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. These are not the results of a team that has momentum on its side as the Playoffs approach. This is especially true for a team looking to defend a championship.
A comparison of the statistics from last year to this demonstrates that Larson and his team need to improve performance if they are to end this season in the same way they ended last year.
After the first 22 races of 2021, Larson had compiled 15 top-10 finishes while only scoring 11 so far in 2022. But perhaps the most telling statistic is that of laps led. At this point last year, ‘Yung Money’ had paced the field for a total of 1441 laps but this year has seen the No. 5 Chevy at the top of the leaderboard for just 291 circuits.
Larson’s average finishing position last year at this time was 10.2 but this season it is 14.3. That is a pretty significant drop off.
However, there is reason for optimism for fans of the driver known almost as much for his exploits on dirt as in NASCAR. The Cup Series is about to head for the track where Larson has visited victory lane more than any other facility on the schedule.
Over the course of his career, Larson has scored three wins and posted six top-5 and seven top-10 finishes at the Michigan International Speedway. The majority of those results came when he drove the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing. In his only start at the Brooklyn, Michigan venue with Hendrick Motorsports he was third behind winner Ryan Blaney and teammate William Byron.
Also consider that the 2-mile D-shaped layout is very similar to that of Auto Club Speedway where Larson won in February. If momentum is to be regained, this is the place to do it. Everyone knows the capabilities of this driver and this team so a resurgence could come at any time.
In other words, if time for Kyle Larson to return to being Kyle Larson and Michigan is the place to make that happen.
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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.
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