Kyle Larson looks to brighter future

Kyle Larson looks to brighter future
Trent Gowar/WoO

Kyle Larson wasted no time returning to Victory Lane—albeit with the World of Outlaws.

On Saturday night, Larson led the final 16 laps on the way to a $20,000 payday at I-55 Raceway.

The displaced NASCAR driver, who lost his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing after using a racial slur during an iRacing event on April 12, joined the Outlaws when the sprint car series returned to action at Knoxville Raceway two weeks ago.

In his third WoO start since the series returned from a hiatus necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Larson held off Brent Marks by .794-seconds to win the Drydene Double Down Invitational in Pevely, Mo. It was his ninth career Outlaws win.

“This is really cool,” Larson said as the crowd cheered. “I’ve always wanted to race here at Pevely (Mo.) and it definitely didn’t disappoint. This place is great. All the track prep, I was worried, but it turned out to be a great race track.

“I can’t thank all of you fans enough for all of your support over the last handful of weeks here. It really means a lot. And everyone that is on this car, Tarlton, Finley Farms, Lucas Oil, Priority Aviation, my family, my friends, everybody. This win means so much personally. I can’t even describe it.”

After winning the 2020 Chili Bowl Nationals—his first successful run at the Golden Driller—Larson appeared poised to have the best season of his NASCAR Cup Series career. Starting his eighth year on the tour, Larson scored three top-10 finishes in the first four races before the spread of coronavirus forced the NASCAR to shut down its schedule.

Prior to NASCAR’s return last Sunday at Darlington, the sport had been sidelined since the cancellation of the Atlanta Motor Speedway events on March 13. Larson and many of his fellow competitors took to iRacing to fill the void. Unaware that his audio was live during an iRacing event at virtual Monza, Larson uttered the N-word. Over the next 48-hours, Chevrolet, McDonald’s and CreditOne dropped their support of the driver. Quickly, Ganassi Racing followed suit and fired Larson on April 14.

NASCAR told Larson he could return to the sport following sensitivity training. In the interim, the World of Outlaws cleared the way for Larson to race in the greatest show on dirt, after he met the series' requirements.

Larson finished 10th at Knoxville Raceway on May 8. After a week off, the series returned to Ken Schrader’s Federated Auto Parts Raceway at 1-55, just south of St. Louis.

Without ever seeing the track, Larson became the first driver to post a sub-10-second qualifying effort with his 9.995-second lap around one-third-mile dirt oval on Friday. Under the direction of veteran crew chief Paul Silva, Larson finished second to brother-in-law Brad Sweet in Friday's 30-lap feature.

Larson started fourth for Saturday’s feature. He quickly moved into second place and pursued pole winner Sheldon Haudenschild, who opened a gap on Larson in the first half of the 40-lap feature. On Lap 23, Haudenschild jumped the cushion in Turn 1 and flipped violently into Turn 2. That opened the door for Larson, who took the lead on Lap 24 and held on till the end.

“When I lost the Jacob’s ladder on about Lap 12, it made it a lot harder,” Larson said. “I was extremely tight but I felt good before I got into the wall. It took me a handful of laps to get used to it. I finally just started to run the crap out of it—and wide open. It was the only way I could keep it from bouncing.

“I actually thought I was better than Sheldon before I got in the wall. It was unfortunate to see him get in the wall. I think it was going to be a great race. It always is with two aggressive drivers. But I felt I could have beat him heads up. That was a huge confidence builder for me.

“Paul Silva has been working his tail off ever since we started the year. Volusia, we struggled, but he worked hard this week and we got better. I felt great in that feature. I could finally get down the straightaway. I could finally get grip in the corner and off. I don’t think I could have been much better other than not making a mistake on my part and hurting the car.”

After Haudenschild retired, it appeared a rematch would unfold between Larson and Sweet, but Marks kept the defending WoO champion at bay.

“Hats off to Kyle,” Sweet said. “I know he needed that. It feels good to be up on the podium. We’ll just have to keep digging here.”

But no one in Pevely felt as good as Larson on Saturday night. Watching his world turned upside down over the last two months has not been easy on the driver known as Yung Money.

“Everything kind of fell in my lap tonight—but we had a good car to go along with it,” Larson said. “I can’t thank each and every one of you enough. Everybody watching on DIRTVision at home, all of my supporters, it means a lot.

“I can’t wait to get my journey started and kind of see where my future goes from here.”

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