CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It is odd to classify a victory on a 1-mile concrete oval in Delaware as the biggest win of Kyle Larson's career. Maybe he is among those who count their greatest triumphs on dirt, in sprint cars, venues far away from NASCAR's glitz and glamour.
But at this time of year, in the middle of a long losing streak and just a year away from free agency, Larson's victory Sunday at Dover International Speedway was enormous for both driver and team.
Larson was not considered a legitimate title contender when the playoffs began. He wasn't even the strongest of the two Chip Ganassi Racing entrants, and had been overshadowed almost all season by new teammate Kurt Busch. Then Busch had a rocky opening round of the playoffs and was eliminated when the field was trimmed from 16 to 12 a week ago.
Seven days later, Larson became the first driver locked into the third round — the reward for snapping a 75-race winless skid — and suddenly is in the championship conversation.
"This is my best opportunity to win the championship," Larson said. "I've got to take advantage of that."
Larson had nine top-10 finishes, but this season could have been considered his worst in years. His numbers are down in nearly every meaningful category — top-five and top-10 finishes, laps led and average start and finish — and he wasn't a lock to even make the playoffs until the final month of the regular season. He did score the $1 million payday with his win in May at the exhibition All-Star race, but his success this year had been relegated to sprint cars, where Larson is idolized for his talent and passion for grassroots racing.
It's why that losing streak didn't seem so bad.
"I've won sprint car races this year. I've won midget races this year. Go-kart races. So yeah, I mean, it doesn't feel like that long," Larson said.
But it had been almost two years and the pressure was mounting. Larson came to NASCAR billed as the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, and while his potential has come in flashes, the results have not been consistent and questions have swirled about his commitment to Cup racing.
With his contract with Ganassi up at the end of next season, it's not necessarily the best time for team owners to wonder if Larson would prefer to be dirt racing but paid as an elite NASCAR driver.
The Dover victory now gives Larson the power to meet his NASCAR expectations. He can prove over the remaining six weeks that he is a top driver, that Ganassi's cars have turned a corner in competitiveness and that Larson does want to be part of NASCAR's weekly show. He's got his sights on Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the champion will be crowned in November.
Larson has three top-five finishes in six career starts at Homestead, where he has led laps in all but one appearance and has the skills to attack the progressive banking on the 1.5-mile oval.
But Larson could never make it out of the second round of the playoffs — no Ganassi driver has ever been to the round of eight — and his performance at Homestead each year meant absolutely nothing in the championship race. Now he doesn't need to worry about Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway, where Larson has crashed in two of the last three races, or the elimination race at Kansas Speedway, where an engine failure in 2017 knocked Larson out of the playoffs.
Instead, he and the No. 42 team can study the tracks at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix, and carve out the clearest path to making the final four at Homestead.
"We want to go and make it into that final round of Homestead, where it's my best track," Larson said. "I've looked at this ever since they released next year's schedule. Texas we could go there and win. We could go to Phoenix and have a good shot to win. Martinsville, hopefully, we can go have a good run there. But we'll see. It's just nice to get a win."
Larson has it pretty good with Ganassi, who allows him to compete in sprint car racing while many team owners restrict what their drivers can do in their free time. And Ganassi is the one who has backed Larson since his transition into NASCAR in 2012. There is loyalty between the two, but it only goes so far when money is involved.
Ganassi took a multimillion-dollar hit in December when the FBI raided one of his primary sponsors and the pledged money for 2020 never came through. To justify an expected bidding war next season, Ganassi needs certainty that Larson can deliver.
The team owner developed Casey Mears and Jamie McMurray early in their careers, only for both drivers to jump to bigger teams after they'd proved competitive in the Cup Series. McMurray eventually returned to Ganassi, where he closed out his career last season and won a Daytona 500, but the organization has never had a title contender.
The closest was probably Ganassi's second season in NASCAR when Sterling Marlin led in points for most of the year before a broken bone in his neck ended his season seven races early.
"Chip has had an opportunity to win a championship, I think one other time maybe, and I think Sterling Marlin got hurt that year," Larson said. "It would be nice to get him that championship that he's honestly probably owed."
Larson may already know what he's doing in 2021, and it may or may not involve Ganassi. But he's going to control the free agent market next season, and results help owners believe he's a worthy investment. In the meantime, he's got a real chance to deliver for Ganassi take a true step toward becoming a NASCAR superstar.