NASCAR Cup Series
After sneaking into Round of 8, Kyle Larson is set up for championship success
NASCAR Cup Series

After sneaking into Round of 8, Kyle Larson is set up for championship success

Updated Oct. 9, 2023 9:32 a.m. ET

CONCORD, N.C. — Kyle Larson had just finished driver introductions and started to walk down pit road to his car Sunday afternoon.

As he passed this reporter, he quipped, "Do I have a far walk?"

It was a much longer walk than usual for Larson, who typically qualifies near the front, so he knows the general area his car is located.

Oh, he knew where his car was located at Charlotte — in the back, near the tail of the line of cars.


Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!

Larson had no one to blame but himself for such a long walk. He had wrecked his car in practice Saturday, and the team had to resort to preparing a backup car Saturday afternoon and night.

His crew chief, Cliff Daniels, wouldn't say how long they worked. But he had lost count of his cups of coffee before the clock even hit noon Sunday.

Even Larson's car owner, Rick Hendrick, admitted before the race that Larson, who entered 15 points ahead of the cutoff, would be feeling the pressure despite being considered one of the most talented race-car drivers on the circuit.

"It's going to be a tremendous amount of pressure because everything is going to be changing every 10-to-15 laps," Hendrick said. "We'll just do the best we can. This is the way it works [in the playoffs]."

The feeling of guilt that Larson felt Saturday probably rivaled that of a year ago, when he wrecked during the Charlotte road-course race and didn't advance out of the Round of 12, NASCAR's version of a quarterfinal playoff round.

He couldn't let his team down again Sunday.

He didn't.

Kyle Larson on what he had to do to advance to the Round of 8

Larson finished 13th in the race, good enough to advance to the Round of 8 by 13 points. He finished a point ahead of Martin Truex Jr., the last driver to advance. If Kyle Busch, who finished third, had won the race, it would have come down to that one point.

"I had my eyes on the 8 [of Busch] for sure," Larson said. "I was nervous on the restarts. I just assume NASCAR races, I thought that the [leaders] may crash or something and he'd inherit the lead and throw a wrench into everything."

There probably was a reason Larson felt a little paranoid something would happen. Last year, a wall sign fell on the track and also there was a caution for curbing coming up. The combination of those cautions, along with Larson's wreck, contributed heavily to him not advancing. 

The 2021 Cup champion certainly had a tone of relief in his postrace comments.

"No doubt it was a stressful weekend," Larson said. "But the team did a great job. Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports did a great job working hard on this backup car late last night.

"I felt like our car was really good. I just was pretty conservative there at times. I just didn't want to make a mistake like I did last year and take ourselves completely out of it."

For Larson, and any driver, it can be hard to look at the big picture when a driver just would rather go race and try to make passes.

"It was stressful there the last 45 minutes of that race or so and we were able to get in, which was the goal going into today," Larson said.

Now stress-free, Larson has a detour to make before going to Las Vegas to open the Round of 8. He will take his first laps in an IndyCar when he goes through his Indianapolis 500 rookie orientation program Thursday, where he will make laps at well over 220 mph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The test is the first step to get him ready for the 2024 Indianapolis 500. He will drive a car co-owned by Hendrick Motorsports and fielded by Arrow McLaren.

"It's hard to think about it when you're in the middle of the playoffs," Larson said. "If it was in the middle of the regular season, I'd probably have more thought about it or have been anticipating it for a while.

"It's come quickly because I haven't really thought about it. ... I won't think about it until Monday afternoon."

At least he can focus on that test without the feeling that he let his stock-car team down. As disappointed as he was Saturday, he left the racetrack Sunday currently three points above the playoff cutoff.

He has his destiny in his hands. And it's always a dangerous place for the competition when Larson heads to the racetrack with confidence.

Take a look at the races in the next round. Larson finished second at Las Vegas behind teammate William Byron earlier this year. The teams then head to Homestead, arguably Larson's best track and where he won a year ago in the first race there in the current Next Gen car.

The round ends at Martinsville, where Larson won in the spring and finished second in the race there a year ago.

The championship will be decided at Phoenix. And although Byron won that race, too, earlier this year, it was Larson who started on the pole, finished second in the first stage, won the second stage and led 201 laps before settling for a fourth-place finish.

"I'm just happy to get through this round," Larson said. "I didn't execute nearly good enough. We go to some great tracks for us next round and hopefully make it to the final four."

Is the Charlotte road course an adequate site for an elimination race?

Thinking Out Loud

The new restart zone for the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course seemed to work, and that was a good thing for the race on Sunday.

In past races, drivers didn't use the frontstretch chicane on the restart. They just used the oval portion and then had a hard left turn into Turn 1, often at high speed and double-file. 

The change this year had drivers using the chicane and the restart zone in the chicane. Drivers anticipated it being tricky to navigate, but they handled it well. It also allowed the field to be a little more spread out heading into the first turn.

While not perfect — some drivers took the green and they weren't even in the chicane yet — it was an improvement and something fans should expect NASCAR to keep for next season.

In The News

--Charlotte Motor Speedway named Ernie Elliott as its Smokey Yunick Award recipient as an innovator on the mechanical side of the sport.

Social Spotlight

Stat of the Day

AJ Allmendinger is only the second driver to earn his first three career Cup wins on road courses. Dan Gurney was the first.

They Said It

"I struggle to believe in myself every day. It's an ugly place sometimes. I always say I have the best life possible, and that's why I'm miserable every day because it's wake up, what the hell are you going to do to be better today?" —AJ Allmendinger following his win at Charlotte

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.

FOLLOW Follow your favorites to personalize your FOX Sports experience
NASCAR Cup Series
Kyle Larson
AJ Allmendinger

Get more from NASCAR Cup Series Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more