Kyle Larson will lead the field to green on Sunday afternoon in the NASCAR Cup Series championship race at Phoenix Raceway with a vast majority of the dirt racing community watching in support.
Larson has an opportunity to complete one of the all-time great motorsport seasons by clinching the Cup championship if he finishes ahead of Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. If he does it with a win, he would become the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to win 10 times in a single season.
It’s a campaign that began in January with his second consecutive Chili Bowl triumph. He won early and often in the Cup Series in his debut season for Hendrick Motorsports after spending the previous year out of the sport during his well-documented suspension.
In August, Larson became the first driver to have won a feature in both the World of Outlaws Sprint Car and Late Model divisions with his victory in the Prairie Dirt Classic at Fairbury Speedway. He won the two biggest Sprint Car races of the year in the Knoxville Nationals and Kings Royal. He also won the famed BC39 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Dirt Track.
In all, Larson has won 28 times in 86 starts across Cup, Sprint Cars, Late Models and Midgets. It would almost feel unjust if Larson doesn’t make it 29 in 87 for whatever reason.
It’s been a long time since I’ve truly raced for a championship, and I don’t really remember how I felt then. I won a sprint-car championship in 2010. I won the K&N championship in 2012. So, it’s been almost a decade since I’ve been in this position with a championship. I feel like, though, if I was nervous then, I don’t feel nervous now.
Larson has been something of an unofficial ambassador between NASCAR and dirt racing over the past several seasons -- a bridge between the grassroots and national touring. He has made NASCAR fans out of dirt fans and vice versa.
As a result, some of the biggest names in dirt racing are rooting for Larson come Sunday. One of them, three-time and reigning World of Outlaws champion Brad Sweet pretty much has to or Thanksgiving would be awkward.
"Kyle is my brother-in-law and a close friend to all of us," Sweet said after clinching the championship at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Dirt Track on Saturday. "So, we're going to be watching closely and cheering for him.
"If he could bring it home, that would be special, especially with us closing out here today. Two in one family would be really cool. He has close ties to Kasey Kahne Racing too. We do a lot of business with Kyle. Definitely will be cheering him on."
When Larson won a million dollars in the All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway, his first comments to the media was a joke about feeling a sense of accomplishment that he won a prize that Brandon Overton couldn’t take from him.
Overton had swept the World 100s that weekend, an event that Larson had participated in, en route to banking $273,000.
"I'm just glad Brandon Overton wasn't here to take any more of our money," Larson said at Texas.
Overton took a page out of the Larson book over the weekend and made his World of Outlaws Sprint Car debut at Charlotte. Afterwards, he plans to watch Phoenix from home and cheer Larson to victory.
Yeah, I think all the dirt guys want to see him win. I have a lot more respect for him after getting out of this thing right here. I don't see how he goes back-and-forth from all these different cars without giving anything up.
World of Outlaws championship runner-up and 2019 Knoxville Nationals winner David Gravel has made a handful of Truck Series starts over the past two years and is a noted NASCAR fan. Like seemingly everyone else in the dirt community, Gravel is also a Larson fan.
"I haven't been able to watch a lot of the races, but I see that he's been winning a lot lately," Gravel said.
Three out of the last four, in fact.
"But obviously, I'm rooting for him," Gravel added. "But Denny hasn't won it. Martin has. Obviously, Chase has so it would be cool to see Hendrick win another one. But I'm going to be rooting for Kyle. He's a good friend and hopefully he can get it done."
Ditto, Carson Macedo, third in the Outlaws standings this year.
"We would definitely be excited if he could win the championship," Macedo said. "He's with an incredible team. I think he's done an incredible job. It's obviously something we all knew he was capable of. I really hope he gets it.
"It's going to be tough because that race is anyone's race with the playoff format. Excited for him and hope he can get the job done. To see his progression has been incredible. A year ago, he was at an all-time low. He's fought back and this year shows the type of driver and person he is."
-Story by: Matt Weaver, Racing America Editor-in-Chief – Twitter: @MattWeaverRA
-Photo credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images