Did You Notice? … Kyle Larson has developed a nasty habit of leaving NASCAR wins on the table? He’s now failed to win nine of the last 10 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races where he’s led the most laps (or tied for the most).
It’s a perplexing pattern for one of the sport’s budding superstars, especially since Larson started out two-for-two. His first career victories at Michigan and Fontana (August 2016 and March 2017, respectively) were won while leading the most laps. There were no signs he was an All-Star reliever about to blow nine saves.
But it’s been uphill sledding for him ever since.
Bristol (March 2017): Larson’s streak of missed opportunities begins. He leads the first 202 laps in this race from the pole, a solid top-five contender throughout. But then a pit road speeding penalty (sound familiar?) traps him in traffic with 78 laps to go. He struggles back to sixth.
Dover (May 2017): Larson leads 241 laps and is cruising with an almost three-second lead before David Ragan crashes with three laps left. It opens the door for Jimmie Johnson to scoot by on an overtime restart, albeit with slightly fresher tires. “I just spun my tires pretty bad,” Larson said then. “I wasn’t getting great launches all day.”
Michigan (June 2017): The track where Larson has three of his five career MENCS victories proved the lone exception to the rule. He led 96 laps here from the pole and cruised to victory by about a second over Chase Elliott.
Darlington (September 2017): Larson led 124 laps from the pole, tied with winner Denny Hamlin for the most in that year’s Southern 500. But as the race wore on, the handling on the car simply wore out. The No. 42 developed a right rear tire rub, presumably from hitting the wall and got stuck in traffic after making a second stop under caution to fix it with 100 laps to go. Larson dropped to 22nd and could only work his way to 14th.
Homestead (November 2017): By all accounts, Larson had the dominant car at a racetrack he seems to drive better than anyone. He led 145 of the first 161 laps, swept the first two stages and appeared a level above all title contenders. But his team cost him the lead on pit road, dropping Larson to third for the final stage. He seemed hesitant to interject himself in the championship battle after that; Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch finished ahead of him and settled the war amongst themselves.
Bristol (April 2018): Larson and Kyle Busch got involved in a back-and-forth duel during the final 100 laps of this rain-delayed race. Larson got the jump on the final restart, pulling away through a push from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. but Busch ran him back down. “Right now is where you gotta be the closer,” Darrell Waltrip on FOX said moments before Busch was the one who closed the door.
“I was just really loose,” Larson said of a lead he lost with six laps left. “Hate that I didn’t win. I feel like every time I race here I almost get a win. I’ve been beat by Kyle (Busch) about every time I race here, too; so that gets frustrating after a while.”
Kansas (May 2018): Larson and Ryan Blaney appeared the class of the field. The No. 42 Chevy led 101 laps, won the second stage and was in prime position to punch a playoff ticket. But Kevin Harvick’s car came alive on a late restart with 25 laps to go. Larson left him the outside lane, a fatal mistake and the No. 4 blew by. Stuck in traffic along with Blaney, that duo wrecked five laps later and ruined the night for both.
Darlington (September 2018): Again, Larson again appeared in position to take the Southern 500 trophy. He led 284 laps, swept both stages and built up multi-second leads. But a late caution led to a series of pit stops and Brad Keselowski beat him out by inches. Larson wound up stuck in traffic (sense another pattern here?) and couldn’t handle well enough in dirty air to catch him.
“It stings, for sure, to not win at a prestigious race like this,” he said. “I felt like if I could have been in clean air, I would have been all right. I knew the only really weakness we would have throughout the race was a short run and that’s what it kind of came down to.”
Charlotte Roval (September 2018): Larson and Keselowski were battling up front again in this race. This time, Larson was second behind Keselowski on a late restart after leading a race-high 47 laps. But Keselowski, as the control car, drove right into the wall coming to green and took Larson with him. The No. 42 Chevy would be 25th in the final running order. (He’ll still be known for the ride-the-wall, last-lap move to advance in the playoffs with a damaged car.)
Atlanta (February 2019): Larson was in charge again. First and second in the first two stages, he led 142 of the first 223 laps until a pit road miscue under caution. A speeding penalty dropped the car back into traffic where Larson never recovered; he ended the day in 12th.
This list doesn’t even include the Chicagoland finish from last summer. You know, the one where Larson-and-Busch played bumper cars on the final lap until Larson inevitably got spun out. In all, Larson has a dozen top-three finishes in the last 48 races since his last Cup Series win in September 2017.
Two themes stand out in a head-scratching series of collapses. The first is simple: Larson doesn’t handle well in traffic. About half of these scenarios left the No. 42 in dirty air where the car just simply wouldn’t respond. Sure, we know clean air is king in today’s NASCAR but we still see the best drivers overcome it. Case in point: Kyle Busch fought from the rear to sixth place Sunday at Atlanta. Aric Almirola fought back a pit road speeding penalty to eighth. Daniel Hemric was fifth after an early pit road spin left him trapped in traffic.
You see the point. Whether it’s poor driver maneuvering in traffic, a setup that can’t master dirty air or a little bit of both, the outcome for Larson is always the same. His Chip Ganassi Racing team needs to find a balance; dirty air can’t be this disastrous.
But the second pattern you can’t ignore is a number of mental mistakes. Pit road speeding and poor restarts, both well within Larson’s control dominate the list. For a guy who can still whip the field on dirt or at any local short track, you’d think that bit of fine-tuning would be cleaned up by now. It’s year six for Larson on the MENCS circuit; he’s not a kid anymore.
He’s also Chevrolet’s biggest hope, at least so it seems early on after Hendrick Motorsports bombed at Atlanta. Teammate Kurt Busch is an upgrade over Jamie McMurray and his third-place finish shows CGR could be in play for a Monster season.
But Larson is the key to how far they go. For him to live up to superstar status, the guy simply has to figure out how to close.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- It’s still absurdly early in the season. But Chevrolet has won one of six races so far in NASCAR’s top three series (Michael Annett, Daytona, NASCAR Xfinity Series). The MENCS Chevy Camaro in year two looks worse than it did in year one. And keep in mind the new Ford Mustang won in Cup in just two races. (Yes, the Camaro won the 2018 Daytona 500. But Daytona, as we know, is a beast all its own.) Can the Bowtie Brigade get their act together?
- Martin Truex Jr. had somewhat of a point with his complaining about Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Atlanta. Stenhouse was a lap down when Truex got to him and wasn’t racing anyone close by. The gentleman’s move was to stay out of the way; note that Joey Logano, the leader’s teammate, steered clear of blowing by Truex despite having fresher tires. But the bigger question is when does that moment come where lapped traffic should pull over in all circumstances. Is it 15 laps to go? 10? Five? The Stenhouse incident happened far enough away from the finish to make the issue a bit of a gray area.
- Ever so quietly, Roush Fenway Racing has four straight top-15 finishes with their No. 6 Ford. Matt Kenseth finished his career with two top 10s before Ryan Newman ran a respectable 14th and 13th to start 2019. Newman joins Kurt Busch as two NASCAR veterans in new rides that feel like they have something to prove. So far, he’s doing it.
- Bubba Wallace may be the most marketed driver in NASCAR these days. The TODAY show, chatting with Kevin Hart, headlining the Barstool Sports push. But he’s also been invisible the first two races, getting wrecked at Daytona before running 27th on Sunday. You can’t be a national superstar that draws in new fans when putting up those types of numbers. The No. 43 team needs a breakthrough weekend at Las Vegas in the worst way.