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NASCAR championship favorites took different paths but both had to learn how to win

| Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, 8:24 p.m.

CONCORD, N.C. — It hasn't been easy for Martin Truex Jr. to get to this point. It hasn't been easy for Kyle Larson, either. But despite their different histories, the different routes they have taken to reach Sunday's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, they're both here this weekend as viable threats to win.

And not just this race either. They're two of the favorites to win the entire Cup Series championship.

First, Truex. He's 37, a veteran racer. This is his 12th season driving full time in NASCAR's top division. Until 2016, he hadn't won more than one race in any year. In most, he won none.

And then he went berserk.

In 2015, Truex finished fourth overall and had 22 top-10 finishes. Then last year, he won four races and looked poised for a championship run before some playoff troubles saw him eliminated in the second round. This year he has been even better, winning five times (more than any other driver) and vaulting to the top of the NASCAR standings.

“It feels really good, honestly,” Truex said of his dominance this year. “It's been a great season. And it's been really cool to be kind of the guy to beat or whatever.”

But for all the success he has had, Truex's path wasn't easy and he doesn't forget that. He certainly hasn't forgotten last year's second-round heartbreak.

“This is the one that got us last year,” Truex said. “I don't think you ever forget it. I think you obviously try to learn from it.”

Then on the other end of the spectrum, there's Larson. He's just 25. This is only his fourth full-time season in the Cup Series. He won his first race last season and got bumped from the playoffs in the first round.

“I put myself in a lot of positions to win throughout my first two and a half years of my NASCAR career, and I seemed to kind of choke late in races,” Larson said. “But each of those losses I had, I learned something from each of them.”

This season, then, has been a revelation for Larson, too. He has won four times, tied with Kyle Busch for the second most of any driver and nearly won several other times. Two weeks ago in New Hampshire, he came second to Kyle Busch in a race he could have won.

But for all the years Truex spent in the middle of the pack of Cup Series drivers, Larson is the opposite. He's a young, upstart driver, compared to the experienced Truex. He never really stuck in the middle, instead rising to the top of the pack almost straight away.

The thing they have in common is that this has been a breakout seasons of sorts for both drivers.

“I've gotten better at winning, or whatever, learning how to win,” Larson said. “I feel like (our) 42 team has been really, for most of the season, the only one that has competed with the 78 (Truex) and the 18 (Kyle Busch).”

Larson is third in the standings (Kyle Busch is second), but he and Truex are two of the favorites to make it to the season finale at Homestead in November.

And while neither said what explicitly changed for them, both are aware this season is a divergence from their past.

“It's definitely a little bit different feeling this year,” Truex said, before correcting himself. “Little bit more comfortable I would say.

“But we'll see how it shakes out.”

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