By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
At restrictor plates races, including the Daytona 500 always expect the unexpected. That’s exactly what most Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers, including Kyle Larson, were thinking as they were about to experience stage racing for the first time.
In qualifying, Larson put his No. 42 Target Chevrolet SS 16th on the grid. This put Larson eighth on the grid in the second Can-Am Duel. He finished ninth in a relatively uneventful race.
Larson started his Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates in the 16th position. As the race got underway, Larson moved forward in the draft.
Eventually, he was up front, battling for the lead as the race neared the end of stage one. However, Larson got shuffled out of the line that was moving forward and finished sixth in stage one. He joined the rest of the field as they ducked onto pit road after the conclusion of stage one.
Shortly after the restart, Larson surged forward and took the lead on lap 65. He held off Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and others for several laps. Eventually Harvick’s line pushed forward as Larson’s lost energy.
Stage two was relatively quiet for Larson. Once again he was up front as the end of the stage neared, but was not able to take the lead. This time, he finished the stage in the eighth position.
After a round of pit stops, Larson restarted the final portion of the race in the lead. However, Larson again was unable to stay out front as Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne moved by. A few laps later, Larson’s quiet race almost came to an end.
Jimmie Johnson got loose after a bump from Jamie McMurray and drifted down the track. Johnson then went across the nose of Trevor Bayne’s Ford Fusion. As Johnson’s car spun, it clipped Larson’s car, as well as Joey Logano’s and Brendan Gaughan’s. Larson was lucky as five of the cars swept up behind him were too damaged to continue.
Under the ensuing caution, Larson went to pit road, where he was placed on the five-minute repair clock. His team quickly made repairs and got Larson off of pit road before his time expired.
Larson restarted in the middle of the field as a result of the repairs. However, he was able to avoid the next three incidents. This helped Larson move further and further up the running order.
Eventually, Larson was the third car in line of an 11-car breakaway led by Elliott. The laps slowly clicked off as those remaining ran single-file on the outside. Not wanting to wait too long, Larson popped out of line in an attempt to pass Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. When no one went with him, he slid his car back in line, still in third, and just ahead of Kurt Busch.
With three laps to go, Elliott’s car began to sputter, handing the lead to Truex. Truex’s car began to sputter a lap later, giving Larson the lead. Larson took the white flag as Busch, Ryan Blaney, and others shadowed him.
Exiting turn two on the final lap, Larson’s Daytona glory turned to heartbreak as his car too, began to sputter. Busch, Blaney, and AJ Allmendinger jumped passed Larson as his car slowed.
Larson crossed the line in 12th as Busch went on to win. This was Larson’s second best finish in the Daytona 500, he finished seventh in the 2016 running.
Larson now sits seventh in the Championship standings, 20 points behind Busch.
Larson was in shock when he talked about his chances at winning ‘The Great American Race,’
“I didn’t think I would have a shot to win the Daytona 500 just yet. I don’t feel like I’m experienced enough on this kind of stuff, but I learned a lot today. We put ourselves in a great spot there to win it. I knew we would be close on fuel, and when we got single-file there, I ran the last 17 laps there are three-quarter to half throttle. I tried to save as much as I could.”
“Watching races in the past when they get single-file up top, it seems that they always wait until the last lap to make a move. I didn’t want to wait that long, so I got going, and got to the lead there. I hoped I had saved enough fuel there. Watching Chase run out there, I knew we would be close because we pitted at the same time and we have the same engines. We just came up short. I’m disappointed, but I didn’t think I would have a shot to win this race, at least, not for a few more years.”
Larson and his team will now look ahead to Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he hopes to continue his success from the 2016 season.