Column: Jeff Gordon Knows Dirt’s A Vital Part Of Kyle Larson’s Winning Racing Recipe

Column By: ZACH HORRALL / INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY – SPEEDWAY, IN – Kyle Larson wants to be the best all-around race car driver in motorsports history, and this week alone, he is making his case as to why race fans at The Dirt Track at IMS this week witnessed greatness during the Driven2SaveLives BC39 Powered by NOS Energy Drink.

His soon-to-be boss Jeff Gordon, one of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all-time and a member of the NASCAR and USAC Halls of Fame, observed what he considers to be Larson’s generational talent with a bird’s eye view from the flag stand as honorary starter Wednesday night of the Stoops Pursuit.

Wednesday night, Larson prevailed with a late-race pass for the lead after a competitor’s mistake to win the Stoops Pursuit and a $3,000 check. It capped off a huge week for Larson, who won the prestigious Knoxville Nationals last Saturday and hopped on a plane to Indianapolis and nearly won the inaugural Verizon 200 at the Brickyard NASCAR Cup Series race on the IMS road course Sunday before finishing third.

On Thursday night, the driver who has dominated U.S. motorsports over the past three months handled the competition again, surviving late-race contact in a battle for the lead to win the third Driven2SaveLives BC39 Powered by NOS Energy Drink.

Knoxville had eluded Larson for years, and finally checking that race off his list was one of the biggest moments of his career. That he nearly won a stock car race on a road course he had never raced on before was even more impressive.

Fast forward to Wednesday, and Larson’s win on night one of the Driven2SaveLives BC39 Powered by NOS Energy Drink even surprised himself, who admits he doesn’t feel as comfortable in USAC Midgets as he does in sprint cars or stock cars.

“I finally felt a little bit more comfortable there, especially during those last five laps I got to run really hard and bend it hard and get good grip,” Larson said after his win. “It’s been awhile since I’ve been in a midget, so I’m not familiar enough with being that sideways. I’m getting the hang of it here.”

Since May 30, Larson has won NASCAR’s prestigious Coca-Cola 600, plus wins at Sonoma Raceway, Texas Motor Speedway (All-Star), NASCAR’s first race at Nashville Superspeedway and at Watkins Glen International. And that’s just on pavement.

On dirt, in addition to Knoxville, Larson won the Kings Royal winged sprint car race at Eldora Speedway and the Prairie Dirt Classic late model race at Fairbury Speedway. Add that to his second Chili Bowl Nationals win in January, now two on the Dirt Track at IMS, and it’s been an incredible 2021 racing season for Larson, who turned 29 on July 31.

Gordon, who will ascend to vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports in 2022, said he’s known all along that once Larson got in great equipment both in stock cars and on dirt, his true talent as one of the best race car drivers in the world would shine through.

“I think we’ve all seen his tremendous talent over the years in pretty much anything he’s gotten into,” Gordon said. “He’s in the best-of-the-best equipment, and he’s the best-of-the-best driver. We all know when those stars align, and they don’t happen very often, he’s one of those talents that comes around every 10 years or something. When you put a guy like that into good equipment, he’s going to do spectacular things.”

As Larson worked his way up to the top level of American motorsports, he was often labeled as the next Gordon, a four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion with 93 wins, or Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion.

But where Larson differs from those modern-day legends is that he races in more than his stock car on Sundays. It’s not out of the ordinary for Larson to bolt from a NASCAR Cup Series race Sunday night so he can make it to a dirt track in time Monday.

Gordon, who grew up racing USAC, said he stopped racing dirt when he reached NASCAR simply because it was a different time. Then, once you reached the pinnacle of stock car racing, that was your focus.

But Gordon, who helped bring Larson to Hendrick Motorsports this year, said Larson was adamant he needed to have the flexibility to race dirt when he wanted. Knowing the success a combination of Larson and Hendrick Motorsports could have, Gordon and team owner Rick Hendrick made it work.

“If you want Kyle Larson, you know that that’s part of what comes along with it,” Gordon said. “I’ve never sat down with anybody that pushed that hard for it and wanted it and felt that was important for him to do, not just for the dirt and short-track community, but for himself as a driver. It took a little convincing for Rick Hendrick, but now he’s embracing it.”

Larson doesn’t just want to be known as a great stock car driver. Or a great sprint car driver. Or a great midget driver. Or a great late model driver. Or maybe even a great NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver, as he has expressed interest in competing in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge one day.

He wants to be the best all-around, but that’s just part of the reason why he races multiple, different cars several days a week. He also does it because he believes the different types of racing keep him sharp and give him the skill set to be the best, which was another selling point when he convinced Gordon and Hendrick to allow him to race dirt.

“If you ask him, he just feels like it makes him very sharp,” Gordon said. “When you’re driving especially a sprint car, and even a midget, everything happens so fast because those cars have so much grip and the tracks are so short. I can imagine that even though the cars are much different, that skill set can keep your mind, reflexes and all the muscle memory really sharp. All I know is it works.”

The NASCAR Cup Series field should also be weary that Larson is keeping his skills sharp as the series heads to Michigan International Speedway this Sunday. Larson scored his first career win on the 2-mile oval in 2016, and three of his 11 career wins have come at the track, making him the early favorite.

A win Sunday would give him his fifth points-paying win of the season for Hendrick Motorsports, and it’s not crazy to think that could be his fourth race win in eight days.

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