Kyle Larson finished in 14th the last time he raced a Cup event at Martinsville Speedway.
MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Kyle Larson used to hate coming to Martinsville Speedway. Just hated it.
A driver used to winning doesn’t like to run poorly. And he couldn’t grasp how to race the paper-clip-shaped 0.526-mile track that required brake and tire management foreign to him, the type of flat asphalt track he never raced in sprint cars.
Larson at least has good company among those who hated Martinsville in their first visit.
Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR Cup champion, didn’t enjoy the track during his initial visits. He started 14th and found himself in the garage before the checkered flag in his first Cup event at the track. By his fourth visit, he started 26th and finished second. By the sixth time he came to the track, he won the race.
“I used to drive up here depressed and not excited to compete here,” Johnson said Friday prior to practice at Martinsville Speedway. “And then it clicked. I would anticipate it happening to him [Larson] before long.
“He’s just too talented a driver in so many different types of vehicles and tracks for it not to work for him here.”
Larson has not enjoyed such a quick learning progression as Johnson did, and he has to wonder how long is the “before long” that Johnson references. Larson finished no better than 27th in his first three starts and then 19th in his fourth start. After placing third a year ago, he came home with just an average 14th-place finish back in October 2016.
Larson has displayed his talent throughout 2017. He nearly won the Daytona 500 before running out of gas, finished second in three consecutive events and then won after leading 110 laps Sunday at Auto Club (California) Speedway.
That start has folks talking about Larson as if he has reached Johnson’s level of performance.
But that is truly hype until Larson at least wins at a track other than the “intermediate” 2-mile tracks at Michigan and California.
Larson needs to show he can win on short tracks. He needs to win a superspeedway race. A road course? If NASCAR adds more than two road-course races, he’ll need to show he can win there, too.
The first step comes this weekend at Martinsville Speedway, where he’ll start on the pole after Friday’s qualifying was rained out for Sunday’s Cup race. In 18 career short-track starts, he has just two top-5s and four top-10s — while he has three races where he didn’t finish.
Johnson said it clicked when he got lapped by Tony Stewart. He followed Stewart and learned the line, where to brake and most important — the rhythm not to chew up the tires.
Larson can have a bad day Sunday and not worry too much. He has a win. He’ll make the playoffs. As the points leader, Larson has a 29-point lead on Chase Elliott, 38-point lead on Martin Truex Jr. and 64 points on Brad Keselowski.
“I’m glad to have a 29-point lead coming into Martinsville because this is my worst racetrack we go to,” Larson said. “Even though we ran well last year, I’ve gotten better at each time, but it’s still not a track where I’m extremely comfortable at.
“I can go fast in qualifying or early on tires, but I struggle at saving my stuff. I’ve got to get better at that.”
Larson finished second at Richmond last fall, but Martinsville requires a driver to take care of the tires and brakes much more. It requires perfect rhythm amid the jerkiness that the driver feels by hammering the brakes and throttle so often on the short track. If there is a place for all those who jumped on the Larson bandwagon to be prepared for a roadblock, Martinsville would be the place.
“As our race cars have gotten better, it’s easier for me to learn,” Larson said about short-track racing. “Last year, I thought I got better at these short tracks. … I’ve got to continue to work hard at it.”
With sprint-car roots, Larson never had to worry about lengthy events and working to pass for 20 to 30 laps. In sprint cars, especially on dirt tracks, he would just find another line to make the move if he had the car to accomplish it.
“Sprint-car racing is short-track racing, but it is a totally different driving style than flat short tracks in stock cars,” Larson said. “Sprint cars on a quarter-mile feel like a stock car at a mile-and-a-half at Charlotte because you’re still carrying a lot of throttle.
“I never drove anything like this until just a few years ago. My learning curve was way behind the guys who grew up doing this stuff. It took me a little time to learn it, but I feel like I’m competitive now and really could challenge for some wins at some of these tracks.”
Johnson had that feeling early in his career, that he could win at any track. In just his seventh Cup race, he finished third at Atlanta. In the 10th race of his rookie season (and 13th overall), Johnson won at California. Three races later, he won Dover, where he won again after another 15 races.
That third-place finish at Atlanta proved to Johnson he could be a player in the sport.
“There were a lot of green-flag runs [with] all the big dogs were around me — I had that moment where like, ‘I can do this,'” Johnson said. “It was one of the most difficult tracks, I ran here [up front] all day and that was a big confidence boost.”
That confidence boost didn’t last long.
“Between the two Dovers, we had a tough span that took my confidence back away,” Johnson said. “We came back and won at Dover in the fall and it brought it back.
“Winning certainly helps. It’s amazing how quickly your confidence can be challenged, especially when you’re a young driver.”
Larson should have all the confidence in the world considering the run he’s on and with his Chip Ganassi Racing cars running so well. But he knows he’s at Martinsville. While everyone around him exudes confidence and excitement, he doesn’t sound like the favorite this weekend — especially when compared to nine-time Martinsville winner Johnson.
“This was probably the one race I looked forward to the least coming to, early on in my NASCAR career. … Normally I’m depressed driving up here to Martinsville because I suck,” Larson said. “But I’ve gotten better lately.”