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Is Kyle Larson Overrated?

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Joshua Lipowski

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If you were to ask people who the best driver in NASCAR is, many would say Kyle Larson. He has had big expectations on his shoulders ever since he was in the feeder series.

However, are the expectations on him too high? Do people rate him too highly? Is this a Kyle Larson performance issue, or a fan expectations issue?

The Early Expectations of Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson had high expectations on him from his time in the lower series. In 2012, he ran in the ARCA Menards Series East, then known as the K&N Pro Series. In that series, he won the championship at the age of 19, beating drivers such as Chase Elliott, Corey LaJoie, and Bubba Wallace. He was so impressive that he skipped the Craftsman Truck Series to jump into the Xfinity Series full-time for Steve Turner.

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Despite not winning an Xfinity Series race, Chip Ganassi hired Larson to race full-time in the Cup Series in 2014. Larson was catapulted up the ladder for one simple reason: his potential.

He was so highly touted early on in his career, that many just assumed that he was going to be a NASCAR superstar from the get-go. However, he struggled just like a typical Cup Series rookie until he finally won his first race in 2016 at Michigan.

Since then, he did have a breakout season in 2017, with four wins for Chip Ganassi Racing, but he only won one race in 2019 (with no wins in 2018). Eventually in 2020, Larson was bounced from his ride at Ganassi after using a racial slur on a live stream. Now a free agent, with no idea if or when he would come back to NASCAR, Larson got an unexpected call from Rick Hendrick.

His Eventual Breakout and Stagnation

In 2021, Larson had his best Cup Series season to date. He won 10 races, and the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Championship. He was by far the best Cup Series driver of the season, and now he had the best equipment. Many felt that this could be the beginning of a NASCAR dynasty.

But, things have not worked out quite that way to this point.

Larson has been good over these last two seasons, but he has not been the “Class of the field” that he was in 2021. He won three races in 2022, and two so far this year. Certainly worthy of being a NASCAR star, but, is he really definitively the driver on the circuit?

He also has struggled to finish some races over the past couple of seasons. He had seven DNFs in 2022 and he has six more in 2023. Sure he has been good, but he has not quite captured the same magic that he had in 2021.

He is amongst the top drivers in the sport, but it’s hard to say that he is definitively the best. Maybe the expectations of him were ridiculously too high. People calling him things like the “Next Jeff Gordon” puts the expectations of 93 victories and four championships on your shoulders.

That is very hard to do even for the best drivers in the sport, particularly with the introduction of the Next-Gen car. How do Kyle Larson’s stats compare to other drivers that many like to compare him to?

How His Stats Compare

Through 315 races, Kyle Larson has 21 race wins, one Championship, 16 poles, and one top-5 points finish. Compare that to Jeff Gordon, who from 1992 and 2002 ran in 329 races. He won 60 races, four Championships, and six top-5 points finishes.

Sure, Kyle Larson has had a solid racing career, but has he fulfilled the expectations some put on him of being the “Next Jeff Gordon?” The stats would say no. As a matter of fact, Larson has only made it into the Round of 8 of the Playoffs twice, with only one Championship 4 appearance.

This is less than drivers such as Chase Elliott, who have three consecutive Championship 4 appearances. Kyle Busch made five consecutive Championship 4 appearances between 2015 and 2019.

However, Larson is still a Championship contender, and a threat to win week-in and week-out, so, is the correct question being asked?

Are the Expectations on Kyle Larson Fair?

When you are compared so early in your career to someone like Jeff Gordon, the expectations can be unfairly high. Kyle Larson is still highly touted for good reasons, even outside of NASCAR. There is a reason that McLaren is letting him drive in the Indianapolis 500 in 2024.

Larson is also one of the best dirt track racers in the country. He has won events like the Chili Bowl and the Knoxville Nationals. This is a major reason why he is so highly touted, because of how good he is in cars other than NASCAR stock cars.

Overall, the question can be asked if the way people tout Kyle Larson is fair. He is a Championship level NASCAR driver, but he is not on the level of other legendary drivers in the sport. It’s hard to say that he is the “Next Jeff Gordon,” because he is not.

He started in the sport with Chip Ganassi Racing, which was not the best equipment in the sport. Jeff Gordon started with Hendrick Motorsports, who was already a race-win contender on a weekly basis. Kyle Larson is still early on in his career, so, he very well could put together a dynasty of his own in the later years. There is still a long way to go in his career, so, the story is still being written.

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Picture of Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

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