Kyle Larson climbed out of his #57 Sprint Car and immediately threw his arms around crew chief and car owner Paul Silva.
The two embraced each other for a moment that was both congratulatory and compassion.
One of the highest profile drivers in motorsports, Larson’s last month and a half has been “life changing,” he said. By his side for the whole journey has been Silva, his family and fans.
On Saturday night, in front of a limited crowd of fans at Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 on Memorial Day Weekend, he was able to turn a page in his journey and reward those who stuck behind him with a World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series victory. After a derogatory comment he made during an online racing event cost Larson much of what he built in NASCAR, he was visibly relieved after winning just three races into his return to his dirt racing roots.
“Can’t thank all of you fans enough for the support,” Larson said. “It really means a lot. My family. My friends. This win means so much personally. I can’t even describe it.”
He won big not only for his supporters, but for himself by winning the Drydene Double Down Invitational finale, which paid an incredible $20,000 top prize. The victory is his ninth career World of Outlaws win and first at I-55 — in only his second start there. He broke the track record at the 1/3-mile high-banked dirt oval and finished second in the Feature the night before, too.
While he made brother-in-law Brad Sweet fight for the win Friday night, Larson, again, had his work cut out for him to take the emotional victory on the second night of the doubleheader weekend.
Sweet and last year’s Ironman 55 winner Sheldon Haudenschild were shaping up to be the two top cars to beat. Both won Drydene Heat Races and Haudenschild set a blistering pace in the DIRTVision Fast Pass Dash, beating Sweet to the finish line by more than two seconds.
At the start of the 40-lap Feature, Sweet bested Haudenschild on the initial start and stole the lead. However, it only took Haudenschild two laps to get into a rhythm around the top of the track — the same line he used to win the Ironman by 10.3 sec. — and rocketed by Sweet as if he had an issue to reclaim the lead.
From then on Haudenschild seemed poised to repeat his Ironman performance. He pulled away from Sweet and sliced through traffic with the precision of a fighter jet.
Larson was on the move behind him, already up to second by Lap 10. However, two laps later he touched the wall with his right rear and broke the Jacobs Ladder on the rear end of the car that helps with handling. His car turned tight and his nerves rose, unsure how he’d fair for the rest of the race.
For some, that’s the end of their night. For Larson, he adapted and learned how to drive his car without it.
“It took me a handful of laps to get used to it,” Larson said. “I finally just started running the crap out of it. And keeping it wide open was the only way I could keep it from bouncing.”
With a handle on his car, Larson said he felt like he could run down Haudenschild and duel with him for the win like he did with Sweet the night before.
That opportunity came to an end on Lap 23 when Haudenschild went over the cushion going into Turn 1 and flipped.
Haudenschild took to Twitter after the race and said, “Man, hate it for my team. Had a great car all weekend. My guys don’t quit.”
Larson then inherited the lead for the final 17 laps. For the final half of the race he had to fend off challenges from Sweet and Brent Marks. However, Marks and Sweet’s battle for the runner-up spot in the back half of the race helped Larson extend his lead over them.
A few cautions interrupted their rhythm in the time frame with the final caution of the night setting up a six-lap shootout with Larson out front, Marks second and Sweet third. Sweet became preoccupied trying to hold off current points lead Logan Schuchart behind him and while Marks made attempts to close on Larson, the Finley Farms #57 was too strong.
“This thing was awesome tonight,” said Marks about his second-place run. “Wish we could have stayed in lap traffic there at the end. The yellows kept falling on us. It just didn’t really work out there. We got lucky to finish there. We were running out of fuel with a couple of laps to go. We were hanging on.”
Sweet was third with current points leader Schuchart behind him in fourth — who now has a two-point lead over Sweet and continues to be the only driver with a top-five finish in every race this year.
Ten-time Series champion Donny Schatz had an eventful night of his own, not transferring to the Feature from the Last Chance Showdown and having to use a rare provisional to start 25th. He was able to work his way to an eighth-place finish and earn the KSE Hard Charger award.
As Larson sped down the front stretch toward the checkered flag, the crowd of fans around the facility erupted into cheers. They continued when his car rolled into Victory Lane, as he hugged Silva and climbed to the top wing of his car to celebrate in an explosion of confetti.
“To win in front of a huge field, and crowd too, it feels great,” Larson said. “Just really proud of Paul (Silva) and everyone who helps out on his team. Everyone who has stuck behind us after my mistake there. It means a lot. I’m having a blast. Trying to have as much fun as I can anyways. Trying to keep my mind off things. It’s cool to come here. We’ve struggled the last two weeks. To turn it around here now, it gives us confidence for sure.”
NOS Energy Drink Feature (40 Laps) – 1. 57-Kyle Larson [$20,000]; 2. 5-Brent Marks [$7,000]; 3. 49-Brad Sweet [$3,000]; 4. 1S-Logan Schuchart [$2,700]; 5. 3Z-Brock Zearfoss [$2,500]; 6. 71-Shane Stewart [$2,200]; 7. 2-Carson Macedo [$2,000]; 8. 15-Donny Schatz [$800]; 9. 18-Ian Madsen [$1,600]; 10. 26-Cory Eliason [$1,450]; 11. 83-Daryn Pittman [$1,300]; 12. 14-Parker Price-Miller [$1,200]; 13. 24-Rico Abreu [$1,100]; 14. 17B-Bill Balog [$1,000]; 15. 11K-Kraig Kinser [$1,000]; 16. 51-Freddie Rahmer [$1,000]; 17. 41-David Gravel [$1,000]; 18. 7S-Jason Sides [$]; 19. 13-Paul McMahan [$1,000]; 20. 83R-Lynton Jeffrey [$1,000]; 21. 1A-Jacob Allen [$1,000]; 22. 87-Aaron Reutzel [$1,000]; 23. 4-Terry McCarl [$1,000]; 24. 17-Sheldon Haudenschild [$1,000]; 25. 41S-Dominic Scelzi [$1,000]; 26. 21-Brian Brown [$1,000]; Lap Leaders: Brad Sweet 1-2, Sheldon Haudenschild 3-23, Kyle Larson 24-40; KSE Hard Charger Award: 15-Donny Schatz[+17]
Qualifying Flight-A – 1. 1S-Logan Schuchart, 10.948; 2. 51-Freddie Rahmer, 10.965; 3. 57-Kyle Larson, 11.007; 4. 71-Shane Stewart, 11.032; 5. 11K-Kraig Kinser, 11.196; 6. 17-Sheldon Haudenschild, 11.22; 7. 1A-Jacob Allen, 11.308; 8. 41S-Dominic Scelzi, 11.428; 9. 21-Brian Brown, 11.436; 10. 48-Danny Dietrich, 11.667; 11. 4-Terry McCarl, 11.698; 12. 24-Rico Abreu, 11.718; 13. 35X-Stuart Brubaker, 11.724; 14. 33M-Mason Daniel, 11.793; 15. 99M-Kyle Moody, 11.82; 16. 17W-Shane Golobic, 11.848; 17. 17A-Austin McCarl, 11.877; 18. 24W-Lucas Wolfe, 11.946; 19. 41-David Gravel, 11.963; 20. 3-Ayrton Gennetten, 12.263; 21. 15-Donny Schatz, 12.274; 22. 35-Zach Hampton, 12.314; 23. 44S-Trey Starks, 12.361; 24. 13JT-Mark Dobmeier, 12.367; 25. 2M-Kerry Madsen, 12.456; 26. 9K-Kyle Schuett, 12.657; 27. 15H-Sam Hafertepe, 12.679; 28. 55W-Logan Wagner, 12.774; 29. 6-Bill Rose, 12.791; 30. 55-Hunter Schuerenburg, NT; 31. 42-Cory Bruns, NT
Qualifying Flight-B – 1. 49-Brad Sweet, 11.531; 2. 3Z-Brock Zearfoss, 11.806; 3. 14-Parker Price-Miller, 11.856; 4. 83R-Lynton Jeffrey, 11.859; 5. 83-Daryn Pittman, 11.874; 6. 2-Carson Macedo, 11.886; 7. 26-Cory Eliason, 11.894; 8. 5-Brent Marks, 11.923; 9. 13-Paul McMahan, 11.927; 10. 18-Ian Madsen, 11.975; 11. 17B-Bill Balog, 11.986; 12. 87-Aaron Reutzel, 11.998; 13. 9X-Paul Nienhiser, 12.015; 14. 7S-Jason Sides, 12.037; 15. 9-Kasey Kahne, 12.038; 16. 11-Zeb Wise, 12.061; 17. 91-Cale Thomas, 12.074; 18. 2C-Wayne Johnson, 12.083; 19. 39M-Anthony Macri, 12.12; 20. 2KS-Chad Boespflug, 12.249; 21. 91R-Kyle Reinhardt, 12.279; 22. W20-Greg Wilson, 12.281; 23. 51B-Joe Miller, 12.283; 24. 70-Justin Peck, 12.334; 25. 49J-Josh Schneiderman, 12.473; 26. 64-Scotty Thiel, 12.552; 27. 44-Jeff Swindell, 12.556; 28. 11T-T.J. Stutts, 12.61; 29. 21X-Brinton Marvel, 12.935; 30. 23B-Brian Bell, 13.127