This Sunday, the first green flag of the 2022 NASCAR Cup season will wave with the 64th running of the Daytona 500.
“The Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing” marks the beginning of a lengthy 36-race schedule which will see drivers compete at 25 different facilities in 20 states, all culminating with the championship-deciding race at Phoenix Raceway on November 6.
While there will be many drivers who will contend for the title as the new season progresses, perhaps no driver is a bigger favorite to win than the man who won it all last year.
Kyle Larson absolutely dominated the 2021 NASCAR season. The 29-year-old California native made the most of his first season in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 car, winning 10 races - nearly double the number of races he won in his first six full Cup seasons combined.
Larson proved he could truly win at all forms of tracks the NASCAR Schedule has to offer, winning on intermediate tracks like Las Vegas and Texas, the short track at Bristol, and winning on road courses three different times at Sonoma, Watkins Glen, and the Charlotte Roval.
Oh, and while it may not count, he also managed to win a bunch of dirt races in his spare time.
If Larson keeps up his pace from last season, there is no reason to believe he won’t be in the Championship 4 finale come the fall event in Phoenix.
And if he does make it two in a row, he'd be the first driver to win consecutive Cup titles since Jimmie Johnson did so from 2006 through 2010.
But is there any stopping Larson? Surely he has to slow down eventually, right?
That’s a question he doesn’t want to know the answer to.
“I don’t want to know what my ceiling is,” Larson said during Wednesday's Media Day at Daytona International Speedway. “I don’t think any of us do.
“You just always continue to try, even when you get to your celling, you try to work hard to surpass it. So, I don’t know, [you] just keep trying to evolve as a racecar driver, keep racing a lot and trying to win races and just fine-tuning different areas of your craft.”
While Larson has won at a variety of tracks on the NASCAR schedule, he has yet to win on a superspeedway like Daytona or its even longer cousin at Talladega. Perhaps ironically, the tracks where Larson still needs the most fine-tuning are the sport’s biggest.
“I haven’t had much success here, so that part of it doesn’t get me too excited to show up,” Larson said of Daytona. “I was close to winning in 2017. I crossed the line coming to the white as the leader and then ran out of fuel, so that was really cool. I remember the emotions of that while I was running, like ‘Wow, I could really win the 500’ and then not winning it fuels me to want to win it in my future because before that race and every race since then I have been not even close.”
On Wednesday night, Larson made a big leap towards making his first Daytona 500 victory a reality by winning the race’s pole position.
After he won the pole, Larson got a phone call from his boss, team owner Rick Hendrick. Larson said Hendrick was very pleased to see the No. 5 back on the pole.
Larson’s paint scheme is reminiscent of the scheme Hendrick’s son Ricky Hendrick drove in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Camping World Truck Series before perishing in a plane crash in 2004.
“That paint scheme means a lot to him and (Rick Hendrick's wife) Linda and means a lot to the whole Hendrick Motorsports family, so to have it on the pole at the Daytona 500 is really special,” Larson said. “I think it would be even more special if we could win the Duels tomorrow and go on Sunday and win the 500.”
Larson was also very pleased by the car put together by the Hendrick crew. Just as Larson is one of the best on the track, Hendrick has always been known to have one of the best crews back at the shop.
“Any time you are really proud of your team to get a pole here because this is the littlest it has to do with us drivers; qualifying at superspeedways,” Larson said. “Just a huge thank you to the engine shop at Hendrick Motorsports.
"Everybody who’s had a part in touching these vehicles; whether it be on the computer, engineering, or just hands-on, it’s really neat, just awesome the speed in our HendrickCars.com Chevy. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a really good weekend.”
And hopefully for Larson, a good weekend at Daytona will be the start of another great season overall.