Greeted with a handshake by team majority owner Chip Ganassi, Kyle Larson showcased his smile on pit road following the AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway. The 23-year-old whipped off sweat as reporters huddled around his No. 42 Chevrolet, a sight he seldom saw in 2015.
Larson put his car in position to contend for a victory for the first time in 2016. Besides leading nine laps at Talladega, he entered Dover without a single lap led during the other 10 Sprint Cup Series races.
Coming home in the runner-up position, Larson tied his best career finish, a mark he first set at Auto Club Speedway during his rookie season in 2014. However, in 2015, he never finished better than third, earning two top 5s as his Chip Ganassi Racing team struggled to find consistency and speed.
In an intense battle with eventual winner Matt Kenseth during the final 35-lap run, Larson set his sights on the lead. Working the high line, he maneuvered his way to the lead momentarily, but could not hold the top position with Kenseth’s car being stronger on the exit of the corner.
“It took a lot of hard work from the guys on the team,” Ganassi said. “They’re working late and hard, working long hours. It’s down to the team and the guys that are in the shop. It’s a lot of hard work that the guys have been doing is finally starting to pay off.”
Larson earned his second top 5 of the year, out-running his third-place result at Martinsville. With six finishes outside of the top 25, he still sits 21st in the standings. However, Sunday’s run was a step in the right direction, according to Larson.
“We’ve had a lot of bad luck,” Larson said with a pause. “It is nice to run second. I felt like I had a couple of opportunities to win the race. I didn’t do a great job, but I knew I did a good job. I knew I was going to be the car to probably beat. I got to second on the restart, and I could see Matt was pretty loose in front of me. I just waited for him to make a mistake, and he made a couple of mistakes.”
Leading 85 laps at Dover, it is the most that Larson has led in one race since Bristol in April 2015, pacing the field for 90 laps that day. Taking the lead on Lap 181, he relinquished it to Joey Logano momentarily, before Denny Hamlin led 15 markers. Retaking the top position on Lap 291, he stayed out front until Lap 331, when he finally gave in after an intense battle with Martin Truex, Jr., who led 47 laps at Dover.
Early in the race, Larson went a lap down to leader Kevin Harvick, who lapped 11 cars prior to the competition caution. When he got the lucky dog during the second caution of the day on Lap 120, he began the move to the front of the field. By the halfway mark, he was leading the race after using pit strategy to get to the front of the field.
During the final stint, Hendrick Motorsports rookie Chase Elliott pressured Larson, who was still working on passing Kenseth. Evidently, Larson gave up the second position momentarily. However, with less than 15 laps to go, the No. 42 car went around the No. 24 Chevrolet, aiming to take the lead.
“It’s so hard to pass someone on the bottom because they can suck down on your door,” Larson explained. “I was probably a little too patient at the beginning, allowing Chase [Elliott] to get close to us and actually get by me. I don’t know how I got back by him, but I got by him. We raced hard there for a few laps.
“I didn’t think I would catch him [Kenseth], but I got another shot at him there at the end. He’s probably the cleanest driver out here. I felt like I did a good job. I probably could have gotten into him once and maybe got by him, but looking back, maybe I should have. I could be in the Chase right now, but we’re getting really good cars built right now.”
The momentum shift is a major change for the No. 42 team, one that has not finished in the top 10 since that third-place finish at Martinsville.
Approaching Dover, Larson knew he would have a strong run. In four prior starts at the 1-mile oval, his worst finish is 11th, highlighted by a podium finish last May, when he finished a season-best third.
Larson has been plagued with cars not on par with the competition, being involved in accidents. This season, he has wrecked at Bristol Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Auto Club Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and Kansas Speedway, equating to five races with one or more on-track incidents.
With the confidence boost, Larson will head to Charlotte with a new, improved car, one he believes will be even faster than the one he had on Sunday.
But Larson is on a mission. He wants to follow in the path of teammate Jamie McMurray, who made it to the second round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year.
“We’re outside of the top 20 in points, and I feel like we’re deserving of being outside the top 20,” Larson said. “We’ve had a lot of bad luck, but we also haven’t had a lot of speed besides these last two weeks. I’ve never led that many laps here before. I know our cars are good and so is our pit crew, which is different from the past.
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