By Jerry Bonkowski
Kyle Larson is unquestionably having a phenomenal season, not only the best of his career, but one of the best of any NASCAR Cup driver in more than 20 years.
Jeff Gordon was the last driver to earn double-digit wins in a season, capturing 13 in 1998 and 10 wins apiece in 1996 and 1997. With his ninth win of the season this past Sunday at Kansas, Larson now has two more chances to not only win 10 races this season, but potentially 11 – and to cap everything off by capturing the Cup championship in a little over two weeks from now.
If Larson were to win this Sunday at Martinsville and the season finale at Phoenix, that would give him 11 wins, the second-most since Gordon’s lucky 13 in 1998.
But if Larson wins only one of the next two races, he’d be the first Cup driver to do so since Jimmie Johnson won 10 in 2007.
While I may have questioned whether Larson could win 10 or more this season only a few short weeks ago, I am now left to question whether he will ever lose again – this season, that is.
It seems that the more Larson wins, the more he thrives off each triumph. That’s why I’m not going to be surprised if he indeed wins at Martinsville and Phoenix, two of the shortest tracks on the Cup circuit. Let’s not forget that the last time Larson was on a short track, he won there as well – over six weeks ago at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Think about that for a moment: in addition to winning his last three Cup starts, Larson has now won four of the last six Cup races – and all being playoff races. His only shortcomings in that six-race stretch were 10th at Las Vegas and 37th at Talladega.
Can Larson win the last two races of the year? Yes.
But it won’t be easy.
He has to beat arguably the most prolific active racer at Martinsville, namely, Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin leads all active drivers at NASCAR’s oldest bull ring with five wins, 16 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes in 31 career starts.
Larson, on the other hand, has yet to win a Cup race at Martinsville.
Then, turning our attention to the season-ending race at Phoenix, Hamlin has two wins, 15 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes there.
Like Martinsville, Larson on the other hand, has yet to win a Cup race at Phoenix.
Wait, there’s more: Kyle Busch has two wins, 16 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes in 32 starts at Martinsville, as well as three wins, 12 top-five and 22 top-10 finishes in 32 starts at Phoenix.
Then there’s Martin Truex Jr., who has slumped to sixth in the playoff standings – but is only three points below the cutoff line – who may very well be the man to beat at Martinsville. After all, he’s won three of the last four Cup races there.
And if the Mayetta, New Jersey native manages to make it four wins in the last five at Martinsville this Sunday, he earns one of the four automatic berths into the championship race at Phoenix.
Add all of these stats together and, as much as I want to see Larson win the next two races, my biggest fear is that come Phoenix, his fantastic season is going to come up short of winning the championship.
Be it that another driver like Hamlin or Truex or Busch – or someone else, for that matter – beats Larson to the checkered flag at Phoenix, it would be fair-and-square, but also put a dismal end to what has been nothing short of a spectacular season.
But there is also recent precedent: Kevin Harvick won a season-high nine races in 2020, yet managed to miss qualifying for the championship race, ultimately finishing a distant fifth in the final standings.
Which brings me back to my fear about Larson: the only way he can guarantee himself the championship he so richly deserves for all the hard work and effort he and his team have put in during the 2021 campaign reminds me of a line in the movie “Major League.”
When the Cleveland Indians are basically put in a win at all costs position, catcher and team leader Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) utters exactly the same thing Larson and his team should say to themselves heading into both Martinsville and Phoenix: “Well, I guess there’s only one thing to do: win the whole (expletive) thing.”
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski