When it comes to forging one’s success as a NASCAR driver, few racers competing in the 2022 Cup Series can claim as an illustrious career as Hendrick Motorsports’ wheelman Kyle Larson. And yet, through all the champagne showers and bumps in the road that got him here, Yung Money’s shown time and again that nothing can slow down the competitive drive that’s molded him into the stock car superstar he is today. That’s why whenever there’s an opportunity to sharpen his skills, rain or shine, he’ll be there, especially if that means battling it out on dirt like he did ahead of Talladega.
“Kyle Larson will go anywhere and race anything at any given time,” noted NASCAR’s Mamba Smith on the penultimate episode of USA Network’s "Race for the Championship." “I mean, in the middle of a playoff run, the defending NASCAR champ – one of the best drivers in the world – is going to Ohio to race a sprint car race on a tiny dirt track.”
“That’s like Tom Brady going to play in a rec league game somewhere in the middle of nowhere while the NFL season is still in progress,” Smith added.
But for Larson, whose tenacious spirit and dauntless commitment to hone his craft have fueled him to extraordinary heights in NASCAR’s top flight, including the 2021 Cup Series Championship, dirt’s where it begins and ends. Thus, with only four days before Talladega, it was only natural for Larson, the back-to-back (2020, 2021) winner of dirt racing’s prestigious Chili Bowl Nationals, to take his talents to two different dirt tracks across two states.
Photo: Getty Images
Despite the brewing inclement weather ahead of the dirt track race Larson was scheduled to compete in at Ohio’s Wayne County Speedway, Larson was all smiles as he signed autographs and rubbed elbows with supporters, saying, “I feel like everybody here is a genuine race fan.”
And he would not be wrong. Propelled, in part, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, dirt track racing has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence over the last few years, according to The Race, and as more NASCAR Cup Series drivers like Larson look for a leg up against their league’s contenders, they’re realizing dirt provides some of the most electrifying competition around. After all, dirt's where the future stars of NASCAR cut their teeth.
"Dirt makes for the best racing," Todd "Bubba the Love Sponge" Clem, a Tampa-based radio host who's a lifelong racing fan, told Popular Mechanics in 2011. "And I say that as a driver and a fan."
"Nothing is more exciting than watching a racer rooster-tail through the turns, the car turned right as he is going left, with one car below him, one car above," Ernie Saxton, who spent 45 years as the announcer and public relations guru at Grandview Speedway in Pennsylvania, told Popular Mechanics. "That is exciting stuff."
But as Mother Nature reared her ugly head and relentless torrents of heavy rain on the dirt track of Ohio’s Wayne County Speedway, it was clear on "Race for a Championship" that any driver looking to get a racing fix that night would have to wait. Luckily, Larson’s not just any driver.
“Not many drivers in the middle of the playoffs would fly hundreds of miles just to run a mid-week, late-model dirt race,” detailed NBC Sports' Nate Ryan on "Race for the Championship." “No other drivers would then, after being rained out, fly back to Charlotte, then on to West Virginia to compete in another race. Talladega’s only days away, and that is crazy!”
Call it crazy, call it passion, call it whatever you want, but Larson’s a man on a mission, and he understands and appreciates the hard-fought, battle-tested wheelmen who enthusiastically compete on America’s dirt tracks. Hence why, after storms drowned the Wayne County Speedway, Tyler County Speedway in Middlebourne, West Virginia had to be his next stop.
“Tonight’s the Hillbilly 100, so it’s a 100-lap, late-model race, and hopefully we can do good,” Larson outlined ahead of the acclaimed event. “The appeal for me is it’s another race for me to run. I did more of it probably last year in the playoffs, and we were running really good.”
“It’s just a nice way to stay fresh, just racing, staying competitive,” Larson continued. “Hopefully if, I come out here and have a good run, it could help on Sunday as well, building confidence and momentum.”
And staying competitive amongst all the brilliant dirt track talent is exactly what he did and then some. As gusting winds thrust billowing clouds of red clay dust into the air during the final laps of the oldest, crown jewel of dirt, late-model racing, throngs of devoted fans cheered enthusiastically as Larson took home the checkered flag at Tyler County Speedway.
“It’s definitely satisfying,” stated Larson after the win. “This is as tough as it gets for a field, and it’s good to put myself in an uncomfortable environment like that, racing with guys who do this for a living, and, you know, go out there and try to challenge myself to get better.”
While dirt tracks might not provide all the blustering pomp and circumstance of NASCAR Cup Series races, the thrill of the victory is just as worthy, and Larson knew exactly how to celebrate.
“I crave Taco Bell,” Larson revealed. “The winner’s dinner!”
Can't get enough NASCAR action? Watch “Race For The Championship,” which follows the lives of NASCAR's biggest stars on and off the track, Thursdays at 10/9c on USA Network. And you can catch up on the series now on Peacock.