AVONDALE, Ariz. — Five years ago, the newly revamped NASCAR Playoffs received its first “signature moment” in its inaugural season when Ryan Newman forcibly moved then-rookie Kyle Larson up the track at ISM Raceway to squeeze one extra, necessary point out of his finish and move on to the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway the following week.
It was widely discussed at the time — was this type of maneuver now fair game? Is this the new normal? Would Larson do the same if roles were reversed?
Newman nearly capitalized on his willfulness to make the Championship 4, coming up just one position short to champion Kevin Harvick at Miami and finishing second in the standings despite not finding his way to Victory Lane over the entire season.
The first two questions remain hotly debated in the garage to this day, but we now know what the Chip Ganassi Racing driver, down 23 points to the cutline ahead of Sunday‘s Bluegreen Vacations 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio) is willing to do if faced with a similar decision.
“Immediately when it happens you‘re upset, but by the time I got out of the car I was like, ‘You know what? He had to do that and it gave him a shot at the championship.‘ He was close to winning the next weekend at Homestead so it was a great move on his part,” Larson told NASCAR.com on Friday.
“Obviously if I’m in that same position, you’ve got to try and do something. There’s a lot on the line. We all want to win a championship. To give yourself the opportunity next week you might have to take some risks you might not typically take. Hopefully it’s Newman in front of me if it does come down to that. Hopefully we‘re just checked out in the lead and don‘t have to worry about that.”
If Larson hopes to be checked out in the front of the field, chances are likely that he had to find his way around Phoenix masters Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, both currently either already locked in or on the right side of the cutoff line, respectively.
“Harvick‘s always dominant, Kyle Busch as well. They‘ll be tough to beat for sure, but the way strategies and things work out you never know what could happen.
“You look at data and kind of see what driving styles they have. Harvick drives so different compared to everybody at a lot of race tracks, but I feel like Kyle and I are pretty similar driving style-wise, just looking at the data. If we can get our car handling right, I think we‘ll be good.”
Even still, the pressure to perform-or-else isn‘t getting to him — it might not even exist within Larson, as the 27-year-old is so cool and collected at the moment it‘s almost medically concerning.
“I haven‘t felt any pressure yet, really throughout these whole playoffs. Just kind of taking it week by week and treating it like it‘s no different,” he said. “I feel good. Obviously I‘d feel a lot better if we were in the top four right now, but we can still get it done with a good points day if we want to have a shot. But we can go out there and win and make it to the final four that way. We‘ve run well here the last few years so hopefully we have a good shot.”
Winning or otherwise, Larson is willing to do whatever it takes to advance. Even if it means revisiting history — this time, for the better.