Kyle Larson hoping to get the jump on weather and rivals in the Daytona 500

Trying to figure out who is going to win this year’s Daytona 500 is the second-most asked question behind a bigger more prescient one. When will the Daytona 500 be run?

There seems to be little chance the biggest race in NASCAR will go at its scheduled flag drop of 12:11 p.m. PST Sunday because of a persistent and sometimes heavy rain that started Saturday and caused the timing of the Xfinity race to be changed Saturday.

The chance for rain is even greater Sunday, leaving officials the option of trying to wait out the weather until Sunday night or postponing the race until Monday, something that has been done twice before.

Daytona International Speedway is a 2.5-mile superspeedway, meaning that the tires that stock cars use do not have tread because it would slow the cars down and cause the tires to overheat. Driving cars with no tread on a wet surface isn’t going to happen. Adding to the complications is that once the racing surface is wet it takes a minimum of 90 minutes to dry.

NASCAR drivers are used to waiting out rain delays, even in the biggest race of the year.

Kyle Larson, the 2021 Cup champion, is among those who have never won the Daytona 500. He is hoping to become the fourth Californian to win the sport’s signature race, following in the tires of Jeff Gordon (1997, 1999, 2005), Jimmie Johnson (2006, 2013) and Kevin Harvick (2007). Larson will start 17th in the ninth row. Joey Lagano and Michael McDowell will start in the first row.

“We sit there with a lot of rain delays at Daytona,” Larson said. “I [spend my time] thinking about what we’ve done at Daytona. I know we’ve gotten Chipotle before. We used to have an Xbox [in the trailer], used to play that some. I’m pretty sure I’ve watched Disney movies [with the kids] during a rain delay.”

Larson was close to winning his second championship last year but finished second. He won four races and led 1,127 laps throughout the season, the most of any driver in the series.

“We came up one spot short of winning the championship,” Larson said. “It’s such a long season, it’s tough. We started out the year really strong, running in the front a lot, but other teams progressively got better.

“You just have to hope you develop in the right direction throughout the year but I’m confident in Hendrick Motorsports. We’ve got the best team that can do it. I just try to keep executing and finish all the races.”

The 31-year-old native of Elk Grove and disappointed San Francisco 49ers fan is definitely focused on finishing races, especially May 26 when he plans to race in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. It’s called the “double” and hasn’t been attempted since 2014 when Kurt Busch finished sixth in both races. Larson will also join John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart in trying this feat.

“The Indy 500 is the biggest race in the world and you want to compete in the big ones,” Larson said. “I’ve always wanted to do the double because it’s a cool thing to try and accomplish, to finish both races in two different types of cars, two different states [Indiana and North Carolina], it’s just really cool.”

IndyCars and those used in NASCAR are very different.

“An Indy car is a much lighter vehicle, open cockpit, no fenders, open-wheel car, which makes for a ton of downforce,” Larson said. “The mechanics of it are quite a bit different. There is also the cockpit adjustment and the weight tracker and fuel settings and all kinds of stuff. There are a whole bunch of buttons on the wheel, hand controls in the cockpit.

“With stock cars, it’s a really heavy car. Stock cars have a little more horsepower but they are so heavy that the speeds are slower, they slide around more. The Indy car is really stuck to race track. The moment your car gets loose [in Indy cars] there is going to be a crash. In a stock car, you can usually save it if you have a moment. The race procedures are different, the pit stops are different. It’s nothing really to compare. There will definitely be a lot to learn.”

But when the sun comes up under a gray, cloudy and likely wet sky Sunday, Larson will be thinking only about winning his first Daytona 500.

“I think looking at the results on paper, we suck,” Larson said. “I really feel like we are a small decision away from making the right move and putting myself in the right spot at the very end.

“I feel like I do a good job getting us to that point, where so many times on the final restart we’re lined up on the first or second row, then a finish 28th, DNF [did not finish], crashed or end up in the care center. Every circumstance is different, right? I feel we are not far off from being really successful here. We just have to keep getting after it.”

Larson is one of four active Cup champions who have never won the Daytona 500. Larson is 0 for 10 in the event that immodestly calls itself the “Great American Race.” There is also Martin Truex Jr. (0-19), Kyle Busch (0-18) and Brad Keselowski (0-14).

“I used to think this race was more luck than skill,” Larson said. “As I’ve gotten older and really studied more, the same guys are always up front. A lot of the same guys win this race. They’re not luckier than anybody. They’re just really talented when it comes to this style. They’ve got a good sense of how things work, where to be at the right time.

“For sure it takes some luck, as it does every race. I don’t really know what it says about anyone.”

As Larson hopes to see the checkered flag first at Daytona, the luck that NASCAR seeks is with the weather. And there isn’t anything else it has less control over.

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