NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: How Much Will Kyle Larson’s Near-Misses Matter?

Sunday’s AAA 400 Drive for Autism at Dover International Speedway ended with a familiar sight: Jimmie Johnson in Victory Lane.  In addition, the race offered another common result during the 2017 season: Kyle Larson finished second.

Larson is in the midst of a career year.  Through the first 13 races, he has one win, six top fives and eight top 10s.  Until crashing at Charlotte Motor Speedway last weekend, Larson led the points for the previous eight weeks.  The No. 42 team is showing speed in practically every race, and Larson is giving Chip Ganassi Racing its best shot at a championship since Sterling Marlin in 2002.

If there is any nit-picking to be done about Larson’s season, it is that a few potential wins have gotten away from him.  His six top fives consist of a victory at Auto Club Speedway and five second-place finishes.  If a few things had gone differently in 2017, Larson could have a sizable win total and be running away with the points lead.

Some of those second places were the result of tough losses, but what happened at Dover may be the hardest pill of all for Larson to swallow.  The California native was driving away from everyone until David Ragan cut a tire and pounded the wall with four laps to go.  The ensuing caution put Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. right on Larson’s back bumper, giving them one last shot to fight for the win.

From that point on, the victory literally slipped away from Larson.  After struggling on the overtime restart, Johnson took the top spot away from the No. 42.  As they roared down the backstretch, Larson slid a bit through the speedy-dry used to clean up the oil from Ragan’s car.  Unfortunately, fourth place Ty Dillon slid a lot, causing him to bounce off Ryan Newman and veer back across the track, leading to a massive accident.  Since Johnson had already crossed the overtime line, the race would end under caution.

Larson’s other near-misses have, like Dover, involved a combination of missed opportunities and bad luck.  At Atlanta, he was unable to hold off a hard-charging Brad Keselowski in the closing laps.  In other instances, particularly at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Texas, Larson was the one chasing the leaders but ran out of time to get another spot.  He even came close to winning the Daytona 500, leading the white flag lap before running out of fuel and fading to finish 12th.

There is no doubt that Larson might like to have a few of those races back, to have another shot at taking the checkered flag.  Yet in the grand scheme of the season, it may not matter much if he piles up second-place finishes instead of wins.  His victory at Auto Club and high points position will get him to the postseason, without a doubt, and the No. 42 team will face a whole new challenge once the playoffs begin.

If Larson can maintain his speed, then maybe no harm, no foul.  Maybe.

In terms of Larson’s championship hopes, playoff points are the biggest question mark.  Larson currently has seven of them: five from his win and one each from two stage wins.  Compared to the rest of the field, he has the fourth most playoff points, which suggests that he is in good shape.

However, when put up against Truex’s 18, Johnson’s 15 and Keselowski’s 12, Larson would be at a disadvantage, despite arguably performing better than all three of them halfway through the regular season.  If Larson gets eliminated at some time during the playoffs by only a few points, he will likely look back on those second-place results as the races that made the difference in whether or not he hoists the championship trophy.

The good news for Larson is that a bevy of runner-up finishes instead of wins did not cause Kevin Harvick to lose the championship two years ago.  Much like Larson, Harvick won early in 2015, showed great speed almost everywhere he went and spent much of the regular season atop the point standings.

From Daytona in February to Richmond in September, Harvick earned an outstanding 18 top-five finishes, 10 of which were second-place results.  As Harvick continued to perform well during the summer but not reach Victory Lane again, a debate emerged about whether Harvick could win if he needed to, and if his lack of bonus points relative to his top-two finishes were a concern.

By the end of the first round of the Chase, that debate was over.  After a disastrous first two races, Harvick crushed the field at Dover and ensured his passage to the second round.  Accordingly, Harvick’s point total was reset to match the other 11 remaining Chasers, and all those near-misses in the regular season amounted to very little as far as the championship was concerned.  Harvick advanced all the way to Homestead, where he finished… second.

Harvick’s experience suggests that Larson should not lose sleep over the wins that have gotten away.  Yet there is one key difference between the two drivers’ situation.  Larson’s playoff points will not go away after the first round of the postseason.  More importantly, his rivals’ playoff points will not go away either.  Having drivers carry these points through the different rounds of the playoffs means that regular season performance has a greater influence on the championship battle than it did in 2015.

Considering that Larson’s performance level is as good as anybody’s, he should not have to worry.  Yet the elimination-style playoffs have been highly unpredictable in the last three years.  If he finds himself just a few points shy of advancing to the next round during the playoffs, Sunday’s second place finish at Dover, and a few others, could come back to haunt him.

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