Kyle Larson is undoubtedly one of the most talented drivers in NASCAR. But even with a championship and numerous wins, he has not won on a superspeedway.
With 21 career wins and a NASCAR Cup Series championship already to his name before the age of 31, some may even argue that Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson is the current best driver in the sport’s top division.
Considering he won six races with a midfield Chip Ganassi Racing operation from his rookie season in 2014 to early 2020 before winning 10 races in 2021 with Hendrick Motorsports en route to a championship, his skills behind the wheel are undeniable.
Even before he entered the Cup Series, his talents were heavily desired across the garage. His successes as a teenager, particularly on dirt tracks in sprint cars, illustrated a potential superstar in the making.
The Elk Grove, California native has a rare ability to wheel a car of any kind around a track of any configuration. Every time the Cup Series visits Homestead-Miami Speedway, he is always the driver closest to the outside wall each lap, toying with disaster every inch of the way while consistently driving the loosest race car in the field to gain lap time.
Combined with the fact that Larson also races nearly every weekend in the offseason and wins in vastly different disciplines, such as the famed Chili Bowl Nationals, and has plans to compete in next year’s Indy 500, he is arguably the most committed driver to his craft. There is simply nobody who has ever done it like he does.
But even despite his all of his motorsport accolades, there is one thing that has always eluded him.
In 39 career NASCAR Cup Series starts on superspeedways, Kyle Larson has failed to score a single victory.
There are other drivers who have yet to win on certain types of tracks or have had long droughts on certain types of tracks before breaking through. Martin Truex Jr., for example, has also never won a superspeedway race, and he had never won a short track race until 2019, despite having won the 2017 championship.
However, Larson’s struggles are different. Not only has he never won a superspeedway race in his 10-year Cup Series career, but he has also managed just a single top five finish. He has just seven other top 10 results. For a driver so skilled and so successful, it’s hard to fathom how his results have been so poor for so long.
But it’s the way Larson’s results have come to be this lackluster that really gets fans’ attention.
The 30-year-old has been in position to win at Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, and now Atlanta Motor Speedway on multiple occasions, only for something to take him out of contention.
Look no further than the 2017 Daytona 500, when he made a brilliant slingshot move for the lead in turns one and two with two laps to go, only to run out of fuel on the final lap.
Just this past weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Larson ran at the front all night before sliding up the track in turn four and spinning off of contact from Erik Jones.
Following his pit stop after the spin, his right front tire inexplicably exploded on the apron, destroying the fender. Following repairs, his right front tire cut down again, which sent him into the wall and ultimately ended his race.
Of course, to score a victory on one of these three tracks, especially in the modern era, you need a lot of good fortunate on your side. Larson simply has never had that luxury.
Are Kyle Larson’s struggles in superspeedway races just a typical NASCAR coincidence, or is this a sporting “curse”?
Allegations of “curses” have been around sports for over a century. The Toronto Maple Leafs, which boast the NHL’s largest fanbase by far, have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967. The Super Bowl champion hasn’t repeated in almost two decades. In racing, there’s the Andretti Curse at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to ever prove if said “curses” are real or not. It all comes down to the feelings and beliefs of each individual, which only enhances and fuels the debates and issues in question.
In the case of Larson, there are a multitude of factors that play into his superspeedway struggles.
Aside from the aforementioned luck factor, there is also the very possible reality that he simply isn’t good at these tracks. Larson obviously knows how to get around them quickly and run up front, but given the way he races each week, his overall driving style might not be suited to the superspeedway racing style seen today.
As someone with a heavy dirt racing background, Larson wins races by outdriving the competition with supreme car control and pure driving skill instead of pure aggression.
On superspeedway tracks, you need an aggressive, elbows-out racing style, all while driving your car around the track with 30 cars surrounding you, throttle pinned down all the way around the track. And you need to be the one to execute that style to perfection all the way to the last lap.
Not to take away from the skill and mentality needed to do well in these races, but they are very niche, and they don’t suit everybody’s strengths. That’s why drivers such as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. run so well every time the series holds a pack racing event, while wheelmen such as Larson or even Kyle Busch tend to struggle.
Kyle Larson has also publicly stated several times that he does not like racing on NASCAR’s three superspeedways.
Whether his disdain for this style of racing simply comes down to his poor results or the fact that he just doesn’t enjoy it is a question only he can answer.
Larson has also brought up the dangers of superspeedway racing several times over the last few years. Talking to Fox Sports about his teammate Alex Bowman’s vertebrae injury suffered in a sprint car crash earlier this year, Larson said he believes that racing sprint cars is not as dangerous as competing in superspeedway events.
Of course, he could just be saying that so team owner Rick Hendrick will continue allowing him to race in other series during his off time. Or, he could genuinely believe it. Still, the mentality that Larson has displayed makes it a fair point to suggest that it could very well take away from his passion, effort, and overall performance in such events.
After all, it is difficult to excel in something if you have a negative outlook toward it or don’t feel safe. Lack of self-confidence on the race track and fear of potential injury can lead to a lot of second-guessing every decision you make.
With 35 competitors surrounding every square inch of your car for three-plus hours straight at 200 miles per hour, such decisions can prove very costly.
It is often said that you make your own luck. While Larson has been very unlucky at Daytona, Talladega, and Atlanta over the last 10 years, he is not completely innocent. His struggles on superspeedways are, objectively, just as much down to him as they are to luck — or even a “curse”.