A second-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway this past weekend summed up the obvious – it was just another productive day at the office for Kyle Larson.
Such has been the norm for the 28-year-old through the early part of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, and while Hendrick Motorsports and the rest of the NASCAR community knew he had the upside so start a season strong, no one expected him to do it right away. After all, Larson had not been in a professional NASCAR Cup Series race for 10 months at the onset of the 2021 Daytona 500. Even with top-notch funding and quality equipment Rick Hendrick could shell out to Larson’s newly minted and revived No. 5, one had to expect an adjustment period.
One would think, and one would be wrong.
If there was an adaptation period, it had to have been missed, because Larson has been very, very good through six races this season. So good, in fact, that his 2021 season could gradually transform into a career year that even has possible title hopes attached to it.
To really show why this could be the case, let’s look at Larson’s 2021 season up to this point. Through six races, Larson has finished inside the top 10 in five of those six races and inside the top five in three of those five. To cap off the excellent finishes, Larson picked up his first win (Mar. 7 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway) since Oct. 6, 2019 (Dover International Speedway). In fact, the strong finishes this early into the season are a career feat – Larson’s five top-10 finishes through his first six races in a season is a career high. His previous career high came in 2017, when he finished inside the top 10 in four of his first six races and went on to win four races and finish inside the top 10 20 times.
Larson’s finishes have not been flukes, either, as he has had the speed to not only back up his strong starts, but to effectively close out races too. In five out of six races this season, Larson has led at least one lap, with the lone exception being the Daytona Road Course on Feb. 21. In total, Larson has led 379 total laps, which currently leads the 2021 Cup field. His 26.3 Laps Led Percentage (LL%), which looks at the sum of laps led divided by total laps completed, additionally leads the field. This currently shatters his 2017 mark (13.8 LL%).
Let’s look back at his 379 laps led, and where it specifically ranks among his other seasons in the Cup Series. Through six races, this total is already tied for fourth in his eight years of racing full-time in the Cup Series (2020 included). Should Larson continue at the pace he is currently at, he would shatter his previous laps led total in 2017 (1,352 laps led) by close to 1,000 laps – Larson is currently on pace to lead 2,274 laps this season.
Larson’s speed has played, as has his maneuverability. Larson’s 431 Quality Passes (which looks at how many times the driver in question passes a car running in the top 15 under green flag conditions) lead the field, with the next closest driver being his Hendrick teammate in Chase Elliott (408). When looking at Larson’s best career year prior to this season (2017), he tallied 1,955 total quality passes. Should Larson continue at the pace he is at currently, he would amass 2,586 quality passes. Once you add this to the fact that Larson’s 231 fastest laps lead the entire field, the realization begins to set in that Larson is not perched atop the leaderboards by cautions or pure luck of the draw. Instead, he is atop the field because his speed is simply that good, and when combined with his passing prowess, makes him extremely formidable on any layout or track configuration.
There is certainly a lot more season that needs to be played out before we can definitively say that Larson will be like this for the entirety. Even still, a driver many expected would be fine has instead turned out to be phenomenal. Should the production continue, Larson could have the best season of his NASCAR Cup Series career.
Not bad for a driver who was out of NASCAR for close to a year, and certainly not bad for a mere day in the office.