Elk Grove’s Kyle Larson is NASCAR’s hottest (and fastest) driver; here’s why – Sacramento Bee

One NASCAR driver is as hot as the weather. Considering how this epic heatwave could melt asphalt, Kyle Larson must be sizzling.

Fresh off a repeat victory at Michigan International Speedway, the young NASCAR sensation returns to his home state on a roll.

Heading into Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, Larson has two Monster Energy Cup victories this season plus six runner-up finishes (including the All-Star race). Atop the Cup Series standings, the 24-year-old Elk Grove native has suddenly become a household name, familiar to even non-NASCAR fans.

“The biggest difference for me this season, I think our race car is just a lot faster than in the past,” Larson said in a phone interview. “Our whole team has done a real good job to find those little gains to make our stuff faster. Every engineer, every mechanic has done a great job this season.”

Driving his fourth season at NASCAR’s top level, Larson gave credit to crew chief Chad Johnston, who joined Chip Ganassi Racing and Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet team just after the completion of the 2015 schedule. A NASCAR veteran, Johnston previously served as crew chief for Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr., winning the Sonoma race with Truex in 2013.

“It took us six months to get used to each other,” Larson said of Johnston. “But now, we’ve got everything put together.”

The biggest challenge this weekend may be triple-digit temperatures. Far from comfortable, the forecast calls for slightly cooler temperatures for Sunday’s race. How will this smoking hot driver handle blistering heat at Sonoma?

“Typically, you’ve got to watch wheel grip coming off the corners,” said Larson, noting that high heat can make Sonoma’s 10 turns super slippery. “It gets really hot inside the race car. That makes the demands (on the driver) that much tougher.”

There’s no air conditioning in a Cup car, he added.

“I’ve got a helmet fan and a fan that runs air into my (fire) suit to keep me somewhat cooler,” Larson said. “It’s still blazing hot.”

Sonoma represents a homecoming for Larson and fiancée, Katelyn Sweet; both grew up in Northern California. Katelyn is the sister of World of Outlaws driver Brad Sweet.

“I know Katelyn will have a ton of family coming,” Larson said.

“I love going up to Sonoma, even if I didn’t grow up (here),” he added. “Napa Valley and Sonoma are so beautiful. There’s lots of stuff to do. It’s pretty much like a little vacation.”

Toyota/Save Mart 350

Where: Sonoma Raceway, Hwys. 39 and 121

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday (practice), 11:45 a.m. Saturday (qualifying); noon Sunday (race)

Tickets: $25-$35 Friday, $35-$45 Saturday, $49-$140 Sunday; children (12 and younger) admitted free Friday and Saturday; children, $10 Sunday.

TV: Noon Sunday, FS1

Details: 800-870-7223, www.sonomaraceway.com

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