Kyle Larson has heard that mental toughness is required to win a championship. He has no idea if that’s true — and if it is required, well, then he doesn’t consider himself the championship favorite this weekend.
Toughness, Larson said, makes him think of veteran driver Kevin Harvick. And when he thinks about mental toughness, Larson points to Tony Stewart and the 2011 news conference where Stewart trash-talked Carl Edwards right out of the title.
The 29-year-old Larson has been deemed a future NASCAR champion his entire career. He came to the series as a 19-year-old sprint car sensation and those who know such things said Larson was even better than both Jeff Gordon and Stewart, a pair of drivers who started on dirt and are now NASCAR Hall of Famers.
He didn’t disappoint upon his 2012 arrival, but his Chip Ganassi Racing equipment was rarely fast enough. Larson tallied an underperforming six wins with Ganassi.
Still, he was a highly desired free agent at the end of the 2020 season and Larson likely could have named his price with a new team — right up until he used a racial slur while racing online early in the pandemic. NASCAR suspended him for the season, Ganassi had to fire him to placate angry sponsors and Larson wasn’t sure if he’d ever be back.
But here he is, headed into Sunday’s race in Arizona in the comeback of all comebacks. He is the star driver of Hendrick Motorsports, the winningest team in NASCAR that hired him out of his banishment a year ago, and the favorite to close out his nine-win season with a championship.
On the track he’s been virtually unbeatable. He also has turned sponsor HendrickCars.com into one of the hottest car-buying sites around. His contract was extended through 2023.
Chase Elliott, the defending series champion, will go for the repeat against Hendrick Motorsports teammate Larson and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.
Truex edged teammate Kyle Busch for his spot and the Penske Racing trio of Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano also was eliminated from contention.
The four championship contenders have combined to win 17 of 35 races, led by Larson with nine, Truex with four, and Elliott and Hamlin with two each.
Practice is this afternoon at 4:05 p.m. with a Saturday qualifying at 7:05 p.m. and the race runs Sunday at 3 p.m. onNBC.
Noah Gragson will battle for the XFinity Series title against Austin Cindric, the defending series champion, A.J. Allmendinger and Hemric, who has never won in 119 career starts in the series.
Gragson’s victory last week at Martinsville knocked JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier out of the final four for the first time in four years. Also eliminated were Harrison Burton, Brandon Jones and Justin Haley.
Gragson won last week by 0.064 seconds, the series’ closest finish ever at Martinsville.
Practice is tonight at 6:05 p.m. with qualifying Saturday at 5:35 p.m and the race runs at 8:30 p.m. Saturday night on NBCSN.
For the Camping World Truck Series, Zane Smith clinched a berth in the championship final four under caution after Todd Gilliland and Stewart Friesen made contact during a three-wide battle for the lead in overtime at Martinsville last week.
Smith, who needed the victory to advance, will contend for the title against three-time series champion Matt Crafton, Ben Rhodes and John Hunter Nemechek.
Among the drivers eliminated was Creed, the defending series champion.
Nemechek’s five victories are more than the other three contenders combined. Smith’s victory was his first of the season, Rhodes won twice — the first two races of the season. Crafton is winless in 2021.
Everything happens today for the truck series. Practice is at 11:05 a.m., qualifying is at 5:05 p.m. and race time is 8 p.m. on FS1.