BULLS GAP, Tenn. (April 6) — Kyle Larson never needs extra incentive to reach victory lane, but he certainly had some in a race he promoted on Thursday night at Volunteer Speedway. Chasing the No. 49 car driven by Jonathan Davenport pushed the NASCAR Cup Series star from Elk Grove, Calif., to another level.
“I think with Jonathan out in front of me,” Larson said, “it makes you want to win even more because he’s just so damn good.”
Larson, 30, found a way to emerge triumphant in his eponymous Kyle Larson Presents Late Model Challenge, outdueling Blairsville, Ga.’s Davenport in a furious, caution-free 50-lap to grab a win that allowed him to keep the event’s $20,000 top prize in his own grasp.
Competing in a special event he promoted for the second straight year, Larson and Davenport officially swapped the lead three times — and unofficially on several additional occasions — before Larson pulled away after gaining command for good on lap 37.
Larson survived a last-lap backstretch scrape with Kyle Busch as he lapped his fellow NASCAR Cup Series campaigner — an encounter that cut the left-rear tire on Larson’s K&L Rumley Enterprises Longhorn Chassis — to reach the finish line 2.109 seconds ahead of Chickamauga, Ga.’s Dale McDowell.
Davenport, who led laps 1-8 and 26-36, settled for a third-place finish after ceding the runner-up spot to McDowell on lap 42. Mike Marlar of Winfield, Tenn., who won last year’s inaugural Kyle Larson Late Model Challenge, started and finished fourth and Chris Madden of Gray Court, S.C., advanced from the 11th starting spot to complete the top five.
Larson’s second Dirt Late Model victory of 2023 — his previous success came Jan. 27 in a Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series event at Golden Isles Speedway near Brunswick, Ga. — certainly had him riding high on adrenalin.
“What a helluva race there,” Larson exclaimed in a postrace interview. “Every freakin’ Late Model race I’ve been in this year is wild and fun.”
Larson also expressed joy over the evening from his promoter’s viewpoint.
“What an awesome track,” Larson said. “Thanks to Vic Hill (the veteran racer who prepared the 4/10-mile oval’s surface) and everybody that was part of this event. Thank you fans for coming out — this is an amazing turnout of people in the grandstands, in the infield, in the pits. It’s wild, and I’m glad we could put on a good race for the fans there, 50 non-stop laps.”
The A-main was, for most of its distance, a classic showdown between two superstars. Starting outside of Davenport on the front row of the feature, Larson went at 2022’s $2 million man hard from the race’s earliest moments.
Larson was able to slip past Davenport for the lead on lap nine just as the pacesetters reached slower traffic, but he couldn’t stay there. He relinquished the top spot on lap 26 when Davenport charged off the outside of turn four to surge ahead.
“I knew the top was gonna be good all night,” Larson remarked. “It was just gonna take somebody to go up there and clean it off, so I told myself before the feature that I was just gonna commit to it and try and catch Jonathan before his guys told him to move up. I was able to do that … then I seen his nose (near the halfway mark) and made a mistake and went to the bottom to try and get by a lapper and he ripped by me.
“I had to kind of get up on the wheel, and thankfully my pace was still good and he wasn’t quite running against the cushion that much in three and four until I started throwing some more sliders at him. He just kept getting tight up there and I could get good runs. I’m just glad that I cleared him and glad that no cautions came out because I didn’t know what to do if we were to get a restart.”
Larson’s winning move, on lap 37, came after he spent a good five circuits dive-bombing Davenport in the corners only to get crossed over each time by the pilot of the Double L Motorsports Longhorn mount. Larson finally stuck the pass when he drove up within inches of Davenport’s rear bumper down the homestretch and flashed to the inside of J.D. rounding the high-banked first and second turns.
Davenport, 39, acknowledged that he was “pretty nice to (Larson) a couple times” in turns one and two when he “let off and let him slide me across my nose,” but he called the sliders “just really good racing.”
“It was awesome,” Davenport said of his frenetic feature. “We took off really good there and I was just trying to ride and not burn up my tires, because I kind of set up for the middle of the race. I thought he’d probably be trying to be ripping that top that Vic (Hill) put up there for us and he done a good job.
“We got back up to him in lapped traffic and got back by him (once), but I was just too tight to run the high side there. I kept trying and then finally burned up my right-rear tire and chunked it out, and that allowed Dale to get by us.”
McDowell, 56, appeared primed to create a three-car tussle for the lead when he closed on the pacesetters before Larson’s deciding pass, but he wasn’t able to keep pace with Larson down the stretch.
“They wore me out watching them race hard like they were,” McDowell said after his second-place run. “I just kind of bided my time, tried to keep my tires under me, and they were up there racing hard.
“I just couldn’t drive my car quite as hard as they could, but it was a helluva race up there. They were sliding the heck out of each other. I was getting excited, I was missing my marks, because I was eager, I was like, ‘They’re gonna touch in a minute and give me an opportunity.’ It just never happened, and we caught traffic wrong.”
If the race had been one lap longer, of course, McDowell would have likely stolen the first-place check. Larson’s final-circuit altercation with Busch, who drove Brandon Overton’s second car, was a heart-stopping moment for the winner.
“I seen Kyle Busch and I think he could tell I was coming because the flagman showed us two to go so he started running the bottom,” said Larson, who debuted a new Kevin Rumley-prepared machine after shaking it down in two recent test sessions. “I thought I could get clear of him off of two before he came up to the top of the straightaway and his right-front got into my left-rear and it kind of bunny-hopped me up.
“I could tell something was broke or the left-rear was flat … I wasn’t sure how close those guys were behind me because I felt like the last five laps or so I kind of botched a little bit, so just thankful there was no caution or anything like that.”
Notes: Larson thanked his fellow NASCAR Cup drivers Kyle Busch and Chase Briscoe, who slapped the wall during qualifying and didn’t run a prelim in Kyle Strickler’s second car, for competing in the event. “I look forward to hopefully getting some more Cup guys out to try these Late Models,” he said, before suggesting to the crowd: “And I don’t know, maybe you guys bug FloRacing and Tony Stewart enough and we can get the Prelude to the Dream back at Eldora.” … After starting in the last row of the feature field thanks to promoter’s option berths, Busch finished 16th and Briscoe placed 18th. … Hudson O’Neal ran third for much of the feature’s first half before slipping to sixth in the final finishing order. It was his first start in the Rocket Chassis house car since the end of February’s Georgia-Florida Speedweeks. … Devin Moran spun in turn three after contact from Steve Smith while running fifth in the second consolation race and was unable to transfer. ... Austin Neely was forced four-wide on the initial start of the third heat race by Tyler Millwood and spun into the inside wall to end his night.