By David Morgan, Associate Editor
On more than a few occasions in his NASCAR Cup Series career, Kyle Larson has dominated a race to the level he did on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway only to fall short in the end.
Leading 269 laps and winning the first two stages of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, Larson seemed to be on cruise control toward his second win of the season, but as the laps wound down and tire management came into play, a confluence of events would keep Larson from capturing the victory.
Throughout the 325-lap event, the only driver that could keep pace with Larson was Ryan Blaney, and with Larson’s pace fading on worn out tires, Blaney saw his opportunity to capitalize and took it. Closing in on Larson as the laps clicked by, Blaney made his move with nine laps to go and never looked back, taking the lead away from Larson and marching on to the victory.
Larson noted that he did his best to manage his tires as the final green flag run played out, but with Blaney closing the gap as the finish drew nearer, he ran harder to try and maintain the advantage he had over Blaney and wound up using up his tires, leaving him vulnerable to Blaney’s late race attack.
“I think he just got a lot better that last stage and it kind of changed up my flow of the race,” Larson said. “I could get out to such a big lead and I could take care of my stuff and run the bottom, where it was maybe slower, but I could take care of my tires.
“He was fast there (in the final run), and I just wanted to maintain that gap that I had, so I had to run in the faster part of the race track and just used my stuff up. He was just a lot better than me there late in the run. I hate to lead a lot of laps and lose, but we had a really good car that we brought to the track. Our (No. 5) Hendrick Cars Chevy was stupid-fast there for a long time. I don’t know if we got that much worse, or if he just got way better.”
Sunday’s finish was the fourth time that Larson had won the first two stages, but fell short of taking the win at the end of the race. Despite the disappointment at Atlanta, next weekend’s race on the dirt at Bristol will be right in Larson’s wheelhouse and he should be right in the mix for the win once again.
“I would have loved to win today to really pick up some momentum,” Larson said about the strength of his team. “But, yeah, I mean, we’ve had the fastest car most weekends. If we can continue to evolve and continue to get better, yeah, I mean, we can do great things.
“Our pit crew has been really good. Our car has been really fast. I feel like for the most part I’ve been doing a good job. With all that Cliff and all the guys making good decisions on the box, yeah, we can definitely go out there and keep contending. If we can contend as much as we are, yeah, I mean, we can win a lot of races.”