Larson learning, earning respect from veterans
March 16, 2013, Zack Albert, NASCAR.com
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Kyle Larson didn't start Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race by setting the bar sky-high, not after enduring heavy crashes in two of the first three events to start the season. For the 20-year-old rookie, a solid finish within the top 10 would have sufficed.
After scoring a dramatic runner-up finish at Bristol Motor Speedway in a side-by-side duel with Kyle Busch, the leader atop the series' all-time wins list, Larson realized those modest goals and then some. He also earned a significant amount of respect for not just where he finished, but how he raced the winner in the closing laps.
Larson erased the sour taste of severe wrecks in the season opener at Daytona and in last week's event at Las Vegas by posting a career-best second-place finish in the Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 300. The performance helped him move from 14th up to ninth in the Nationwide Series standings, but also helped Larson breathe a sigh of relief at day's end.
"It's been a rough three weeks so far," Larson said. "I think I was running 10th early in the race and I was thinking, 'I'm happy here and I'd just like to finish.' Missed a couple of wrecks, and just really, really wanted to finish. But then, once I got to the front, I wanted to win. It was a lot of fun. I just needed to finish because we were kind of digging ourselves a hole here, especially after Vegas. I just need to be consistent from here on out and try and inch back up the points standings.”
Larson started 12th and was contently running ninth at the halfway point, but he methodically gained spots as Sprint Cup Series regulars Busch, Kevin Harvick and, for a while, Brad Keselowski battled in front of him. By Lap 255 of the 300-lapper, he had closed up to the lead pair of Busch and Harvick and slightly damaged the right-front corner of his car in a three-way logjam in lap traffic.
When Harvick pitted during the race's eighth and final caution period, Larson inherited second place and closed up on Busch's back bumper. The rookie looked high and low for a path to pass in the final 10 laps, ultimately driving it in deep around the high line to pull alongside on the white-flag lap. The two knocked fenders as they whisked under the checkered flag with Larson winding up just .023 seconds shy of a breakthrough victory.
Perhaps cognizant of the boo-birds he heard after banging C.E. Falk III aside to win the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series portion of the UNOH Battle at the Beach at Daytona last month, Larson made a point to keep it clean engaging Busch over the final stages.
"I didn't want to have anything like that happen again and have more people having a bad look at me, because I don't race that way," Larson said. "I didn't want to move him or anything like that; I wanted to try to outrace him. I think I'd get a little more respect that way and it definitely made for a better finish, I think."
Busch appreciated the show of sportsmanship, especially as his young rival makes initial impressions in NASCAR's national series.
"He played it smart today. That was good on his end," Busch said. "You know, a lot of people have been looking at him to see if he's going to be a wrecker or a checker, and today, even though he didn't get the checkers, that's how you get 'em.
"That'll come back. I mean, (if) you drive in the corner and drive in the back of me or something like that, I'm going to be here for a while, and if he keeps coming up the ranks, he's not going to have fun dealing with me every week. But right now, I'm going to race him as hard as he raced me but just as clean as he raced me because he didn't put a fender on me all day."
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