Kyle Larson has found his happy place—playing in the dirt.
On Monday, Larson returned to the Hawkeye State. His first stop—Southern Iowa Speedway for the Front Row Challenge to defend last year’s victory. His effort resulted in a second-place finish to Daryn Pittman.
Larson then returns to the Sprint Car Capital of the World for the Knoxville Nationals on Wednesday. McDonald’s will sponsor Larson’s effort in the No. 57 Silva Motorsports car as he makes his sixth attempt at winning the most prestigious event in 410 Sprint Car Racing.
Given the caliber of talent in the World of Outlaws, the 27-year-old Elk Grove, Californian knows taking home the trophy come Saturday won’t be an easy task.
“Hopefully, I’ll be good, but I think as fast as (Brad) Sweet’s run all year—and how he dominated last year and every time he hit the track—he’s got to be your favorite,” Larson said. “But you can never count out (Donny) Schatz.
“Yeah, I think your typical guys. I think (David) Gravel and the 41 will be really good. Logan (Schuchart) has been strong, too. They are your normal contenders, but we’ll see.”
Sweet, Larson’s brother-in-law, has been on a roll since winning his first Knoxville Nationals last year. The current points leader has won 12 of 46 races and finished in the top 10 in 41 of those events. Schatz, a 10-time Knoxville winner, has recently picked up the pace. He’s closed to within two points of Sweet in the standings with seven wins, 31 top fives and 42 top 10s.
Gravel, third in the standings, has the support of Jeff Gordon and Axalta this week as he attempts to carry the 41 back to Victory Lane at Knoxville for the first time since late team owner Jason Johnson pulled off the feat in 2016. In his sixth WoO season, Schuchart has already matched his career-high four wins in just 46 starts. The 26-year-old grandson of Hall of Famer Bobby Allen is currently fifth in the standings and finished eighth at Knoxville last year.
In nine World of Outlaws starts this season, Larson has advanced to the feature eight times, won twice and posted five top-five finishes. In five Knoxville National starts, Larson’s best result was second to Schatz in 2017. He hasn’t finished worse than fifth in his last three starts.
The driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet will run double-duty this weekend between the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway and Knoxville. However, the logistics are a little different this year, since Larson can’t catch a ride between venues with fellow team owners Tony Stewart or Kasey Kahne.
“I race Monday at Oskaloosa, Wednesday at Knoxville, then hang out some on Thursday before flying to Michigan,” Larson said. “Hopefully, my prelim night goes well, so I don’t have to try and figure out getting back for Friday, and then I’ll go back on Saturday.”
Three of Larson’s five Cup wins have come on the two-mile Michigan track—including three-straight from August 2016 through the following year. Larson, who is looking to return to Victory Lane for the first time since the September 2017 Richmond race, is encouraged about returning to the Irish Hills.
“I feel like we’re quicker than we were the last time we were at Michigan,” Larson said. “I feel like we were a top-five car there. Our strategy just didn’t work out during our final segment. We’ll see. You never really know. But we were fast last time, hopefully, we’ll be a little quicker this time.”
Larson has enjoyed a considerably better second half of the season. In his last 12 starts, he has posted four top fives and seven top 10s.
“I feel we’re as good as we’ve been all year,” Larson said. “So I’m really happy about that. These last couple of months I feel like our cars have been really competitive and I’ve challenged for a couple of wins. Even with our back up cars the last couple of weeks, we’ve been really fast.
“It’s a good time of the year to get speed in your cars. Obviously, the last couple of weeks I’ve made the mistakes that have cost us. So I just have to clean up things on my end—the whole team during the race. We have to get better even still but as far as our race cars go, I feel like they’re really fast here lately. So I’ve been excited.”