2018 NASCAR Cup series — Kyle Larson looking for a fourth straight victory at Michigan International Speedway


BROOKLYN, Mich. — Kyle Larson doesn’t sound like a driver going for his fourth consecutive win at Michigan International Speedway this weekend.

When a driver hasn’t won all season, a cool stat such as having won the three previous races at the same track doesn’t mean he has overwhelming expectations for the fourth.

Just two drivers not named Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr. have won in the 21 non-restrictor-plate races since Larson’s victory in September at Richmond. Both of those came at tracks 1 mile or shorter, with Matt Kenseth winning in November at Phoenix and Clint Bowyer winning earlier this year at Martinsville.

“Right now, you look at the same three guys [with the bulk of the wins] as being the favorites, but maybe with my wins, I’m probably considered the favorite, or a favorite,” Larson said.

“We’re just a little step behind those guys right now. With having three wins, confidence could be up, and that could be important.”

Only one driver — Bill Elliott — has four consecutive Cup wins at Michigan. Larson and David Pearson join Elliott among the only drivers to have three consecutive wins at the track.

A driver earning four consecutive wins at one track has happened 14 times, including two drivers winning seven consecutive Cup races at a track (Darrell Waltrip at Bristol from 1981 to 1984 and Richard Petty at Richmond from 1970 to 1973).

“I think it would be cooler if [that fourth] actually happened — I haven’t really thought about it a whole lot,” Larson said Thursday after a tour of Chevrolet’s Lansing, Michigan, manufacturing plant, where Camaros and Cadillacs are built. “It would be just a big deal to get our first win of the year.

“But then when you’re in Victory Lane and the media center after, and you’re talking about four in a row at a track, that’s when it would maybe hit you that you did something pretty special as a team. But we’ve got to do that first.”

The reason for tempering expectations: sitting ninth in the Cup standings, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has five top-5 finishes in 14 starts this year. He ranks fourth in percentage of laps led (about 8 percent) but those came in just three races. He led 101 laps at Kansas, the only intermediate track roughly similar to Michigan where he has led. He finished fourth in that race.

“Last year at this point of the season, we were one of the best cars,” Larson said. “We’re still close to that, but I think it would be a little bit tougher task right now to get a win than it was last year at Michigan.”

The team can carry over some of what it has learned in past Michigan races, although the tire is different for this race than last year and the new NASCAR inspection process has changed how teams approach tracks like the 2-mile Michigan oval.

“How the weekend progresses and how the track changes is still relevant,” said Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston. “How the tire reacts and how they’re enforcing the rules is going to change how the race probably plays out for you.”

With a 115-point cushion on the current playoff cutoff, Larson is in position to potentially gamble for that fourth consecutive Michigan win. But his crew chief didn’t sound like someone willing to gamble, instead feeling the need for momentum and a positive attitude.

“It’s more important, probably; if you have a fifth-place car, finish fifth with it or finish second with it like we did last week and try to build momentum,” Johnston said. “Momentum is based off finishes. You’re only as good as your last finish.

“If you have a shot to win and you run out of gas and you end up 25th, the only thing that matters is a 25th-place finish, not how the car performed before that.”

Larson hasn’t always had the best car in his Michigan wins. He led 41 laps after starting 12th in earning his first career Cup win in the August 2016 race at Michigan. He won from the pole, leading 96 laps, in winning in June 2017. In the most recent race, in August 2017, he led the final two laps, passing Truex on a restart in overtime.

“The last one we won was really difficult,” Larson said. “I ran like 10th all race long, but we were able to have some good pit strategy and a good restart at the end.

“The other two that I won, I feel like we had the best car going into the race.”

And what if everyone calls Larson the favorite this weekend?

“Even when I’m a favorite, I don’t really look into it at all,” Larson said. “I’m just out there racing and go as fast as I can and try to finish as high up as I can.

“I don’t think too much about the hype behind it all.”

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