NASCAR driver Kyle Larson looking to turn around luck at Sonoma Raceway
Elk Grove native Kyle Larson has always run fast at Sonoma Raceway — anyone who has captured two straight pole positions for the NASCAR Toyota/Save Mart 350 and owns a track record likely does.
But Larson hasn’t been able to turn those hot laps on Saturday into great finishes on Sunday, and he heads into this week’s race looking to complete the full package and end up in victory lane.
“What I struggle with mostly at Sonoma is keeping grip in my tires throughout a run,” he said. “For whatever reason, I seem to lose grip too much and that’s where I lose my speed on the long run.”
Great runs to start in the past two years have resulted in 12th- and 14th-place finishes for the 26-year-old who has been billed as one of the next big things in the sport.
But Larson has struggled this season, so a big weekend could be the spark for what’s been a disappointing 2019 campaign that’s almost halfway finished.
Through Friday’s first practice, Larson had the best 10-lap average at 92.001 mph early in the session. He finished with the 13th-fastest lap in the session.
Then came the second practice, and Larson returned to his familiar top spot at Sonoma.
Within the first 20 minutes of that final practice, Larson had recorded a 95.026-second lap at 95.468 mph during a two-lap run — almost a full half-second faster than anyone else at that point. He finished with the fastest lap and the third-best 10-lap average in the session.
Larson shrugged off the difficulty of Sonoma Raceway’s new carousel configuration.
“It’s just a few extra corners, so it’s not really a big deal to a few of us out there,” he said. “I would like to be better in race trim (the car’s setup for race day) but if we get another pole, it would be pretty cool.”
He couldn’t compare the turn to anything else he’s raced before, though.
“It’s kind of an odd corner because I feel like I have a lot of grip for the first two-thirds of the corner, and then on the drag strip you lose all of your grip,” he said.
Heading into this weekend, Larson hadn’t tested on any road courses — not like that needed it — or raced the carousel, but he did use a simulator during the week off to prepare for the six-race stretch that kicks off with Sonoma.
“I hope it (the carousel) adds a couple more passing zones,” Larson said.
Larson is trying to get back on the right track after a tough campaign to this point, despite winning this year’s All-Star Race at Charlotte in May, which resulted in a $1 million prize but no points toward the championship.
He’s on a pretty heavy winless streak in points races, having not won since the Sept. 2017 race at Richmond. He raced well in 2018 with 12 top-5 finishes, 19 top 10s and six second-place performances.
This year, Larson has a high finish of third, at Dover, and only a handful of top 10s. He led 142 laps at Atlanta before falling back and finishing 12th. He worked his way into second place midway through the last race at Michigan before finishing 14th, and was up to sixth at Pocono before falling back to finish 26th.
Larson said the speed is there, but luck hasn’t.
“That’s what’s been frustrating. Having decently fast race cars relieves that frustration … something seems to happen toward the end,” he said.
But despite the disappointment through 15 races, the return to the track nearest to where he grew up is always welcome.
“It’s not too different. It feels like a normal week,” he said. “There’s a few more people hanging around the race car before the race.”
Larson was able to provide 100 race tickets to firefighters and first responders for this weekend’s race through the 1st Tix organization, and the raceway matched his contribution with another 100 tickets.
“It’s been tough to watch the devastation caused by fires in Northern California and I can’t thank the first responders enough,” Larson said in a statement about his donation. “Those men and women worked tirelessly to keep people and property safe.”
Active and retired first responders and law enforcement can request tickets for Sunday’s race by signing up at www.1sttix.org.