Friday 5: Kyle Larson's quest for greatness could lead to an unforgettable month

The conversation took place three years ago but time has only magnified the words Kyle Larson spoke that day.

Larson and I talked ahead of the 2021 Cup playoffs about the comparisons that were made of him to Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Tony Stewart — racing royalty whose success was not limited to just one form of motorsports.

A couple of months later, Larson won the Cup championship, capping one of the greatest seasons in U.S. motorsports history with his dominance in NASCAR and victories in some of the biggest races in midget car, sprint car and dirt late model racing.

Car owner Rick Hendrick, once adamant that his drivers not race in any series outside of NASCAR, softened his stance when he signed Larson and will be a part of his driver's greatest adventure.

This month, Larson seeks to become the first driver in a decade to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. - 4 p.m. May 26 on NBC) and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. The only drivers who have done both in the same day are John Andretti, Robby Gordon, Kurt Busch and Stewart.

NASCAR Cup Series AdventHealth 400
NASCAR Cup Series AdventHealth 400

Kyle Larson maintains No. 1 spot in NASCAR Power Rankings after Kansas win

The Kansas weekend featured NASCAR’s closest Cup finish.

While this was a feat many figured Larson would attempt some day, talking with him three years ago, it was clear what this opportunity would mean to him.

I noted how he had acknowledged that he wanted to be considered one of the greatest drivers and asked why he had been so open about that.

“Not that I don’t want to be just referenced as the greatest NASCAR driver of all time or the greatest sprint car driver of all time, I want to be known as somebody who could climb into all different types of cars and be great at what they do,” Larson told me.

“You’ve mentioned there’s a small list of guys like that. I think to, hopefully someday add my name to that list — you’re not going to get everybody to compare you to them — it’s just a goal. It’s just a cool goal to, I think, set and aspire to be like those legends and heroes.

“Every generation needs somebody to set high goals. I’m fortune enough that I do get to race a lot of different cars. I think there’s a lot of drivers that would love to be doing exactly what I’m doing, but they don’t have the opportunity, and I’m just lucky enough to have that opportunity to try to chase a hefty goal like that.”

Consider what the next few days will be like for Larson, who is coming off a win at Kansas Speedway in the closest finish in NASCAR history.

Saturday, Larson will practice and qualify his Cup car at Darlington Raceway. This is the first time the series has been back to the historic track since Larson won last fall’s Southern 500 to open the playoffs.

Sunday, Larson will race his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet at Darlington.

Monday, he will be at Kokomo Speedway competing in his No. 57 sprint car in a High Limit Racing series event on a quarter-mile dirt track about 60 miles north of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Tuesday, Larson will slide into his No. 17 Arrow McLaren/Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on opening day of practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Three days, three different cars.

When I talked to Andretti in 2021, he marveled at Larson’s exploits in various cars then, saying how Larson “just captured me in a very special way because I see a lot of myself there.”

Andretti, the only driver to win a Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Formula 1 championship, told me then how he was attracted to running different types of cars in his career.

“We’ve all been somewhat versatile in different situations and with different opportunities,” Andretti said. “I was feeding (off of) A.J. and Dan Gurney and people like that. Dan Gurney was winning in stock cars … Formula 1 and sports cars. ‘I want to do that.’ That’s really what motivated me.

“Somewhere along the line, I think Kyle connects with all of us that have been crossing over (to other series).”

After his win last week at Kansas, Larson was asked if this was the most exciting time of his life with what remained ahead this month.

"It's really fun, honestly,” Larson said. "To this point, it just feels normal to me. It doesn't feel like it's crazy different than real life typically is for me.”

2. Spire Motorsports’ busy year

Spire Motorsports knew that Zane Smith, on loan from Trackhouse Racing, would be with the team for only this season. That left an opening in the third Spire chartered car that the organization filled this week by signing Michael McDowell to drive the car in 2025.

NASCAR: Daytona 500 Media Day
NASCAR: Daytona 500 Media Day

Michael McDowell to drive for Spire Motorsports in 2025

Michael McDowell will join Spire after having been with Front Row Motorsports since 2018.

Doug Duchardt, president of Spire Motorsports, said there was never a thought to sell the charter for that team and be a two-car operation.

“We feel really good about where we’re at with the size (of the organization),” he said.

McDowell cited having a multi-year deal — Front Row Motorsports had him on a year-to-year contract — and seeing the potential of Spire Motorsports as among factors in his decision.

The move continues a flurry of activity for Spire within the last year. Consider:

July 5, 2023 — Spire announces a multi-year partnership with Gainbridge, a Group 1001 company. Gainbridge has been on at least one of the Spire Cup cars in eight of 12 races this season. Companies in the Group 1001 family have been the primary sponsor of two Spire cars in six of 12 Cup races this year.

Aug. 2, 2023 — Spire announces a multi-year contract extension with Corey LaJoie.

Sept. 16, 2023 — Spire purchases a charter from Live Fast Motorsports for a reported $40 million, giving Spire three charters.

Sept. 27, 2023 — Spire purchases Kyle Busch Motorsports, its chassis operation and race shop. A few days after the deal, Spire co-owner Jeff Dickerson said in a press conference: “I don’t know how many more of these deals we have to do before people know we are for real.

Oct. 10, 2023 — Spire announces that Carson Hocevar will drive the No. 77 in 2024.

Dec. 4, 2023 — Spire hires Doug Duchardt as president. He is responsible for oversight across the entire organization, including competition, personnel and business operations. He previously had been an executive with Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Jan. 4, 2024 — Spire signs Chase Purdy for the Truck season.

Feb 7, 2024 — Spire signs Rajah Caruth for the Truck season.

May 8, 2024 — Spire signs Michael McDowell to a multi-year deal that begins in 2025. 

Spire Motorsports has a technical alliance with Hendrick Motorsports. The pit crews for the No. 7 car of LaJoie and the No. 77 car of Hocevar come from Hendrick Motorsports. The pit crew for the No. 71 car of Smith comes from Trackhouse Racing, which also supplies Smith’s crew chief, engineer and car chief.

Heading into his weekend at Darlington, Hocevar is 22nd in points, LaJoie is 30th and Smith is 34th.

"I'm very proud of where Carson is right now ... as a rookie in a very tough series," Duchardt said. "When you look at who he is ahead of, I think it shows that our group has taken a big step as far as pacing the cars and being able to go compete."

3. A year later for Ross Chastain

After watching Kyle Larson’s race end due to a move made by Ross Chastain — the third time in a four-race stretch that had happened — car owner Rick Hendrick was frustrated last May at Darlington Raceway even though William Byron won the race for Hendrick Motorsports.

Chastain and Larson made contact racing for the lead in the final laps. Larson finished 20th, Chastain 29th. It followed incidents triggered by Chastain at Talladega and Dover that collected Larson.

Hendrick had enough, saying after last spring's Darlington race of Chastain, a fellow Chevy driver: “I don’t care if he’s driving a Chevrolet if he wrecks our cars. I don’t care. I’ve told Chevrolet that. If you wreck us, you’re going to get it back. If you don’t do it, they’ll run all over you.”

Chastain and Hendrick later talked. Chastain has been known for his aggressiveness. It has helped him climb from rides with small teams to rides with teams at the front of the field.

There’s always a line with aggression on the track. Without that mindset, Chastain may not have made his “Hail Melon” move on the last lap at Martinsville to gain five spots and advance to the 2022 championship (where he finished second in the points to champion Joey Logano). Sometimes that aggressiveness gets him in trouble as it did last year.

Chastain heads into this weekend 10th in points and has one playoff point, which came from winning the second stage at Texas. Darlington represents the midpoint of the Cup regular season.

4. Odds and ends

Some facts and figures courtesy of Racing Insights:

The last seven Darlington races have been won by a different driver: Kyle Larson, William Byron, Erik Jones, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick. The track record is 11 consecutive different winners.

The eventual winner has never finished worse than 10th in a stage in 12 races at Darlington with stages.

The stage 2 winner at Darlington has yet to finish better than 25th in four races with the Next Gen car.

Denny Hamlin has led in the last eight races at Darlington. The last driver to lead more consecutive races at Darlington was Jeff Gordon. He led 10 in a row from 1998-2003.

5. Popular Throwback schemes

This weekend at Darlington Raceway is NASCAR’s throwback celebration with teams bringing different schemes on their vehicles and former drivers returning to the track.

Among the throwback schemes released, the most popular driver is Kyle Petty. Three different teams will have schemes celebrating Petty’s cars.

Daniel Dye’s Truck will feature Petty’s 1989 Peak Antifreeze scheme. Leland Honeyman Jr.’s Xfinity car will have Petty’s Mello Yello scheme. Brennan Poole’s Xfinity car will have Petty’s 1997 Hot Wheels scheme.

Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Cale Yarborough and the movie “Days of Thunder” each will be on two different vehicles this weekend at Darlington.