Kyle Larson is the real deal in NASCAR, and his fellow drivers let him know it with handshakes and slaps on the back Sunday.
Larson broke through at Michigan International Speedway to win his first Sprint Cup race and was roundly congratulated by the folks in the NASCAR garage.
Larson, 24, put himself in the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs by winning the Pure Michigan 400 in his No. 42 Target Chevrolet.
His team owner, Chip Ganassi, celebrated in victory lane with Larson, who dedicated the win to his late friend Bryan Clauson, who was killed in a midget car race this month in Kansas.
Larson, who was making his 99th Cup start, beat NASCAR rookie Chase Elliott (Chevrolet) to the checkered flag, with Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski (Ford) third.
Elliott blew his chances with a poor late restart, and Larson made him pay.
“We both spun our tires really bad,” said Larson. “And the No.2 (Keselowski) pushed me really good. He could probably have pulled underneath me and went by. But he stayed with me and got me the lead. So, thanks to him.
“I had a lot of fun. My adrenaline is going crazy right now. Thanks for all the fans who watched. I had a good time.”
Added Larson, who is 15th in Cup points: “This one is for the Clauson family. We really miss Bryan. We love him. We parked it for him, so that’s really cool.”
Elliott, who is also desperate for a breakthrough Cup victory that would likely ensure him a start in the Chase (which begins at Chicagoland on Sept. 18) blamed himself for another shoddy restart in the closing laps.
It may have cost him the victory.
“Definitely a bummer here again,” said Elliott, who had a strong No. 24 car all day. “For the second time this has happened.”
Elliott, 20, son of iconic NASCAR driver Bill Elliott, finished second to Joey Logano at MIS in June when he muffed a gear change late in the race.
“That’s a couple races in a row in just a few short months at this place when we had a really good car, a good opportunity,” said Elliott. “That’s the one thing I try really hard to do is make the most of opportunities when they’re presented.”
For Team Penske’s Keselowski, it was another missed chance to win his first Cup race at Michigan.
He drove hard all day in the No.2 Ford but fell just short.
“All in all, a lot to be proud of,” Keselowski said of his finish. “Seems like every time we come here, we want to win so bad, we run third or fourth every time, which is really good in the Sprint Cup Series, but it is certainly not the win we’ve been looking for.”
Keselowski, who is second in Cup points to leader Kevin Harvick (Chevrolet), who finished fifth on Sunday, did have good words for the new lower down-force aero package mandated at MIS by NASCAR.
“I think this package is pretty strong,” said Keselowski of NASCAR’s attempt to make the Cup cars harder to drive and create better and closer racing. “I like it a lot, personally. It’s not perfect, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of stuff to still work on. I think it’s a smaller improvement in showcasing driver talent to win races.”