Kyle Larson looks to recapture early-season speed as NASCAR playoffs loom


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USA TODAY Sports’ Brant James looks ahead to some of the top story lines fans should keep an eye on at the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race.
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Passing points leader Martin Truex Jr. in an overtime restart and gliding to victory at Michigan International Speedway was symbolic of what Kyle Larson hopes to accomplish in the three-race approach to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and then into the postseason: get some grip, get some speed, and get past him again.

More recently-applied tires helped on Sunday. Being at Michigan, where Larson has claimed three of his four Cup wins, didn’t hurt either. It’s progress, but Larson knows his No. 42 Chevrolet team is capable of more.

“(We’re) still not as like dominant as we were in the early parts of the season,” the Chip Ganassi Racing driver told USA TODAY Sports. “I thought a lot of the season we were better than Martin, but the Toyotas seem to have been getting a lot faster each and every week, so, it’s been tough to keep up with that.

“But we’ve been working extremely hard at it, and finding some gains, for sure, in the wind tunnel and in our setups and stuff. Just have to keep chipping away at it and hopefully we’ll hit on something here again and go back to being dominant.”

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Larson has three top-10s in seven starts at Bristol Motor Speedway, site of Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race, his best a sixth-place finish from the pole this spring. That finish came a week after his fourth runner-up result in the first seven races of the Cup season.

Larson, who won for the third time on Sunday, led the points standings for eight consecutive weeks, helped by his first win of the year in the fifth race of the season at Auto Club Speedway. His lead, 54 points at its peak, evaporated as Truex started a spring tear with a win at Kansas Speedway, but a Larson win from the pole in the first race of the season at Michigan re-established him atop the standings.

Larson held the lead for three more weeks, but ceded the top spot again despite consecutive runner-up finishes at Kentucky Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway as Truex, his Furniture Row Racing adversary won and finished third, respectively. Third in points after finishing 23rd at Watkins Glen, Larson passed Kyle Busch for second in the standings after completing his Michigan sweep.

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Truex’s playoff points war chest — he has a 17-point advantage over Larson — seems to assure him enough insurance to advance through three rounds of elimination playoffs, as one driver will proceed on points each time. Larson is optimistic, though, assuming his team can make gains versus a Toyota fleet that has improved throughout the season and greatly benefitted Truex.

Larson seems particularly encouraged if he can reach the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway, when the champion will be determined by the best finish of four viable title-eligibles.

“I think we’ve got to get some speed and grip back in our race cars,” Larson said. “I feel like we’ve lost a little bit of our grip that we’ve had in the beginning part of the season. So, if we can find some grip and speed, we’ll be really good again.

“I still feel like we can still for sure make the final four at Homestead. We’ve just got to stay consistent, not have any bad luck, race hard, but be smart about it all with the bonus parts we have.

“We have to run up front. Those 10 (playoff) races are so intense. You have to be so consistent. It’s incredible how any bit of bad luck throughout those 10 races can really affect your season, so if we can stay out of trouble and run up front like we have been, we’ll have a good shot.”

Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

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