It’s no secret that this summer Kyle Larson didn’t win at the incredible pace that finally propelled the multi-sport star to one of the greatest seasons in motorsport history a year ago.
But to think that the defending NASCAR Cup champion would replicate this year’s array of crown jewels won at the Chili Bowl, Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s All-Star Race, Prairie Dirt Classic, Kings Royal, at the Knoxville Nationals and the BC39 Midget race seems more zealous. how practical.
2022 Front Row Challenge at Southern Iowa Speedway
Perhaps Larson, whose 2022 has 11 wins but none of serious prestige so far, felt the urge to muster more zeal from the inside ahead of the biggest week in Sprint car racing, the Nationals of Knoxville. Monday’s victory in the Sage Fruit Front Row Challenge at Southern Iowa Fair Speedway, however, might have been the cure for Larson’s searching spirit – at least aboard the Sprint Car.
“I thought we were going to be a lot better at the 360 Nationals, but we were horrible. Confidence was pretty much non-existent…until tonight,” Larson said, initially speaking of his quiet 11th-place finish Saturday at the 360 Sprint Car Nationals at Knoxville, Iowa Raceway. “My car felt really good (Monday). Like really, really good. Osky though is a totally different track (compared to Knoxville). I know its shape is similar and everything, but it’s still different.
“Who knows what’s going to happen,” Larson added of what Monday’s win could do ahead of his quest to win back-to-back national championships from Knoxville this week. “I felt really good.”
Last year, Larson’s win at the Front Row Challenge was his 20th victory in a 33-win season. It was also the final stepping stone to Larson’s expected arrival as the Knoxville Nationals champion, a feat he had been repeatedly denied since the event’s first race in 2012.
But Larson had gained so much at the time, the win didn’t pack as much punch and weight as Monday, or in this case relieved as much weight in the sense of rushing to find more speed ahead of the preliminary night of Thursday.
The 30-year-old started fifth and went all the way in 30 nonstop laps. It took Larson laps 13-19 to brush aside the nation’s winningest driver with 17 wins in Anthony Macri for second place, and once poleman Carson Macedo appeared in his crosshairs on lap 20, it took two corners to Larson to complete the winning shot.
In short, the way Larson handled business was very much like his decisive self from that time a year ago.
“Yeah, really happy,” Larson said. “My car felt really good from the hot laps. We struggled a bit here, like in Knoxville during the 360 Nationals, and we came here and felt a lot different than I was there. We’re happy about that Yeah I had a really good car and I was able to manage (Giovanni Scelzi for fourth and Brian Brown for third) there at the start of the race and then started to choosing cars. We were doing good laps together.
“My car suited me well and I could race wherever I wanted, which is good,” added Larson. “You could run (the bottom) for a few laps, but if you did it too many times in a row it would clear that lane. Then you’d have to get up at the top and wait for the guys on the bottom to spit crumbs up. ‘in the middle to get some grip. My car was pretty good at carrying a lot of speed on the entry and kind of staying in those crumbs in the center of the corner.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like Larson was wrong before Monday. His sixth Sprint Car of the Year victory in the Front Row Challenge puts him in the top 10 in national statistics. His four victories in World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car are fifth in the series in limited action (17 of 47 races in the series).
He has also finished second six times, giving him 12 top-two finishes in 24 races this year, more than last year. Interestingly, Larson’s only second-place finish in the Sprint Car last year was his preliminary night at the Knoxville Nationals and his nine wins ahead of The Granddaddy of Them All accounted for all of his first-two finishes in 2021.
It may be a subjective assessment, but it seems like every Knoxville National Championship in recent memory has ended with the perceived favorite as the champion. For example, Donny Schatz maintained his status as the sport’s gold standard from 2006 to 2017 by winning 10 of 12 event titles.
Tim Shaffer in 2010 and Jason Johnson in 2016 were the only outliers amid Schatz’s unbeaten run. Shaffer’s crown jewel victory was part of a 17-win season, while Johnson’s victory two years before his eventual and sudden death was an emotional upheaval for Schatz.
Brad Sweet coupled his first World of Outlaws title in 2018 with his first crown in Knoxville. In 2019, David Gravel had a perfect week in Knoxville, winning the Capitani Classic, his preliminary evening and of course the grand finale on Saturday.
Last year, Knoxville had been another crown jewel throughout Larson’s brilliant campaign.
This year, there may not be a distinct favorite like in years past. The wins have been split evenly among the sports favorites in 2022. But if Monday says anything, it’s that Larson echoed the idea, like a top seed in college basketball’s March Madness, that the Knoxville glory still runs through him.
“Last year we were winning a lot so I probably expected to win here (at Osky) and I knew we would have a chance to win (the) national championships,” Larson said. “We’ve been good this year, but we just haven’t been as good. Tonight, as I felt, I feel pretty confident again.