Larson ready to take next step?
Jeff Gordon Sunday Conversation
LONG POND, Pa. -- Kyle Larson has already opened eyes throughout NASCAR to his talent in his rookie season.
Winning the pole for Sunday's GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway (coverage begins noon ET, ESPN and WatchESPN) seems like the next step in the progression of the Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates driver, but coming at the 2.5-mile triangular behemoth might be a bit of a surprise because even he admits the track is very "technical."
Young drivers have won at the "Tricky Triangle" often in the past, with Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin practically owning the place in their first few Sprint Cup seasons. Add in that six of the past 17 races here have been won from the No. 1 starting spot and Larson -- the first NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate to earn a Sprint Cup pole -- appears to be primed to notch a first series victory and lock up a spot in the Chase.
But following through on Sunday is the key, and the 22-year-old Japanese-American has been working hard to make it happen, running in nearly every type of car at the track.
"I think with the strong runs I had here last time in the ARCA series and then finishing fifth in the Cup Series [in June] and we have a really fast Truck too this weekend, I think all those help the confidence, for sure," he said. "For whatever reason, I feel like I've adapted pretty well to this track, even though it's not a track where you maneuver around and can move from the bottom to the top.
"Maybe because it's a technical track in the sense that you do have to -- I know I'm not good at shifting -- but you have to shift and all that. It makes it technical, so it seems like I have liked tough racetracks, and this is definitely one of them."
Pocono is technical because the three turns each have a different banking and a different radius. Drivers and crew chiefs describe it as driving a lot more like a road course than a typical oval. Crew chiefs in particular say it's impossible to set up the car to be good in all three turns.
"The differences in the corners always generate some compromise," said Alan Gustafson, Jeff Gordon's crew chief, to reporters earlier this week. "You're trying to compromise the least amount as possible."
Coming off a win at the Brickyard, Gordon and Gustafson are looking forward to Pocono, where what was learned at Indy -- another long, flat and wide track -- can directly correlate to setting up the car this week.
"The tunnel turn [Turn 2] is a lot like the turns that we have at Indianapolis," said Gordon, who will start fifth Sunday. "But the other two are quite a bit different. So, we take something that we learn from every track we go to and try to apply it.
"And I think we've applied some of those things this weekend that should work well."
Things have worked very well here for Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates since Gordon won the rain-shortened August race in 2012. Kasey Kahne, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the three since then.
Gordon was the top Hendrick qualifier Friday, with Earnhardt eighth, Kahne 12th and Johnson failing to make the final round of qualifying at 17th.
Saturday's practices, when drivers and crew chiefs switch their cars over to race trim, are also important, of course. Kurt Busch led Saturday morning's practice after leading Friday's practice, as well. He qualified fourth on Friday. Larson was 18th.
But Earnhardt made it clear that practice doesn't tell a team everything about the car, and, even if you don't have the best one on the track, there are ways to make up for it and pull out a victory, as he did in June.
"I remember, during the race weekend when we won here, we really didn't think we had the best car," he said. "On Saturday at the debrief [in June], we were communicating about what we could do to get better.
"We didn't go into the race thinking that we had a very good chance of winning; we were just going to try to do the best we could and felt like we had a top-5 car, but there were certainly some guys much faster than us in practice. ... "
"Anything can happen here. You get out front, it's going to be hard to pass. It's easy to pass from 15th on back, but when you get up there and the competition gets so tough in the top five you just have to be in the lead or in second -- somewhere around the top three or four, even -- on those last two restarts. The last restart, you need to be on the front row to have a real shot at it."
As has been the case all season, the Penske Racing Fords of Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski -- virtually interchangeable in any given qualifying session -- were stalking the pole. Logano ended up second and Keselowski third, and they've both won here before. Larson took it as a good omen.
"I barely edged out Joey, which feels great," Larson said. "He has been fast in qualifying, him and Brad both, and they were right there behind me. It just feels really good and definitely adds to the confidence for Sunday."
And with pressure building to make the Chase, Larson can use all the confidence he can get.
"Yeah, there is definitely a little bit more pressure," he said. "Each week that we get closer to the Chase when you don't have a win -- I think I'm the 15th seed [currently]. It's all close in points. It would be nice to get a win and relax a little bit. I think we have been close, really close and our car showed a lot of speed pretty much all season long. We just have to find a little bit more.
"I feel like we have a really fast car for this weekend. Hopefully we can get it done."