CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kyle Larson first took off his steering wheel and hung it out the window as he did celebratory burnouts. Then he climbed to the roof of his car and raised his arms in triumph.
A day after one of the most demonstrative victory celebrations in at least a decade, Larson seemed sheepish about the exuberance he showed at Michigan International Speedway.
“I probably went a little overboard,” Larson said Monday.
Nobody was complaining.
Larson gave a rare display — by NASCAR standards — of raw emotion after winning his first Sprint Cup Series race Sunday. It came in his 99th start, three long years after he burst onto the national scene with projections of being the next big thing in a sport that hypes up young drivers then spits them out when they fail to produce.
Although he was lauded by the top names in NASCAR as one of the most talented drivers to come along in decades, Larson couldn’t find his way to victory lane. Part of it came for driving for an organization trying to dig itself out of a downturn, some of it was inexperience and some of it was plain driver error.
No matter the excuse, Larson was barely sniffing at the front of the pack and always found himself on the outside of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
The outside is a tough place to be when you drive for Chip Ganassi, who fields winning cars in six different series and can be a bit demanding.
“There’s always pressure from Chip. He loves winners,” Larson said Monday. “That’s no secret. He says he loves winners in every tweet he sends. Every week he tells us to do the obvious things right, and then you don’t do the obvious things right.”
But Ganassi has shown patience with his NASCAR rebuild and he’s got faith in the 24-year-old Larson. When Larson declined to race Matt Kenseth roughly in the closing laps at Dover earlier this summer, Ganassi didn’t complain about his driver failing to do whatever it took to win.
It’s important to understand how massive a Chase berth is for an organization like Ganassi, and when Larson decided to race cleanly against Kenseth, it was a huge missed opportunity to ear that automatic berth into the playoffs.
But Ganassi defended Larson’s decision that day and was redeemed on Sunday when Larson beat Chase Elliott on a late restart to claim his victory.
“Everybody said ‘Why didn’t you hit him? Why didn’t you do this or that?'” Ganassi said. “That’s Kyle. I think it’s important to understand that these guys are not robots … they’re all different. They’re all different personalities.
“I couldn’t be more proud of how he’s developed over the last couple of years.”
So tired of answering when he’d finally win a race, Larson had nearly given up Sunday after a slow pit stop cost him the lead. It allowed Elliott to race to a huge advantage that Larson knew he couldn’t overcome.
Elliott, a rookie, was going to be the next first-time winner and Larson was going to be forced to discuss another race that got away.
Then a late caution changed everything and gave Larson a second chance.
That’s when the nerves began to take hold.
“I was relieved that the caution came out because there was absolutely no way I was going to win the race had that yellow not come out,” Larson said. “I knew what was at stake there on the restart, it was a huge restart. If I don’t get the jump, I’m going to not make the Chase, not get the win, have to watch Chase get his first win before me. There was just a lot on the line.”
Larson knew he was better than Elliott on the restarts, but figured Elliott would change something up with the win on the line. Instead, he said Elliott took off in the exact same spot in what turned out to be a tire-spinning poor restart for both drivers.
But with a push from Brad Keselowski — and a fear that he was about to wreck the field — Larson took off and the checkered flag was finally in sight.
The celebration that followed was refreshing and pure: Larson dedicated the win to friend Bryan Clauson, who died from injuries in a sprint car crash earlier this month, then he sat down next to his car to compose himself.
“It was all emotion,” he said. “I had spent two or three minutes screaming and running and I was pretty lightheaded. I just wanted to take a second and regain my composure. I didn’t need to be passing out in victory lane.”