- Kyle Larson was already arguably the best all-around driver in the world.
- His performance at Talladega showed he is now even better despite the fact he didn't win.
- It's rare to be great on several different track types. Larson is now great on all of them.
Kyle Larson was already arguably the best all-around race car driver in the world, and now he might be even better.
In Sunday's race at Talladega, Larson finished fourth. Though he didn't win the race, he was in contention in the final turns, and his performance, along with the rest of the Hendrick Motorsports team, shows that the defending champ no longer has any weaknesses in his driving.
Coming into the Talladega race, Larson had notably never finished in the top five in 32 career races at superspeedways. It was the one type of track where he was not considered a threat.
To have so few weaknesses was already rare for NASCAR drivers, something former champion Brad Keselowski noted earlier this year when asked what makes driving in NASCAR so difficult.
"The challenge is the tracks are different," Keselowski told Insider before the race in Austin. "In NASCAR, in order to be good, in order to compete for championships, you gotta be good at all different types of tracks. And there's really five different types of tracks (superspeedways, intermediate, short, road, and dirt) ... So it's a really difficult challenge to be an elite NASCAR driver because it's kinda like you're a Jack-of-all, and rarely do you become master-of-all-of-them or even one. But you have to, and that's what separates the best."
Keselowski added that Larson's all-around ability is what makes him so great.
"I look at a guy like Kyle Larson, and I think what makes him special is that he can win, realistically, at four out of the five types of tracks," Keselowski said. "And that's pretty impressive. Most of the drivers say, 'I can win at two. I can win at three.' But to be able to win at four out of five, that's pretty good."
While Keselowski mentioned at the time that there were no drivers that could win at all types of tracks, that appears to have changed with Larson's latest performance.
Hendrick Motorsports changed its plan for the superspeedways, and it worked
HMS drivers took four of the top five spots in qualifying at the Daytona 500 — including the pole for Larson — but struggled during the race. Entering Talladega, the team put less emphasis on qualifying and more on the race, something Larson's teammate Alex Bowman mentioned.
"We changed the car a lot," Bowman told Bob Pockrass before the Talladega race. "Just trying to have speed in a pack instead of speed by ourselves."
—Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) April 24, 2022
Three of the HMS drivers finished among the top nine. The fourth driver, William Byron, led the most laps, 38.
Meanwhile, Larson was second with 32 laps led and was the only driver to spend all 188 laps in the top 15.
"I feel like I did a pretty near-perfect job for me at a superspeedway until the last lap there," Larson said after the race. "We did a great job executing all race long. The car was great ... Honestly, the first time I've had a legit shot at winning a plate race in the Cup Series. Happy about that. When you're close, I was in the exact position I wanted to be in; I didn't want to be leading. I felt like I did a good job with patience and stuff. Made one small mistake there, and it cost me the win."
Larson's record on superspeedways was already better than it appeared
While Larson's record at Daytona and Talladega was well-known, it was also a little misleading.
In 2017, Larson had the lead at Daytona entering the final lap before running out of gas. He was also in the lead group on the final laps with a strong shot at finishing in the top five in 2019 and 2021. This year, he was in the lead group again before a wreck took him out with 10 laps to go.
Even at Atlanta Motorspeedway earlier this year, which now races like a superspeedway, Larson led the race with two laps to go before a wreck ruined his afternoon.
At the end of the day, it is the results that matter, but some of Larson's struggles on superspeedways were due to plain ol' lousy luck.
But now it seems like Larson's luck is starting to change, and he has a superspeedway car to go with the talent, and the rest of the field should be worried.