NASCAR: Should Kyle Larson’s loss trigger flashbacks?

Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

Unfortunately for Kyle Larson, Sunday’s disappointing result isn’t all that uncommon in recent NASCAR Cup Series seasons for him. But why is it different in 2021?

Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson appeared to be well on his way to becoming the first driver to win two races in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season on Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Rick Hendrick’s newest driver dominated the 325-lap Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 around the four-turn, 1.54-mile (2.478-kilometer) oval in Hampton, Georgia behind the wheel of his #5 Chevrolet, at one point leading by roughly 12 seconds — nearly half a lap — over Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney in second place.

Unfortunately for Larson, not one of the 269 laps he led was lap 325, and he had to settle for second place, 2.083 seconds behind Blaney’s #12 Ford.

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Due to his recent history of not being able to close out races, this disappointing finish brought back flashbacks for some fans as Larson settled for silver for the first time since his return to the sport following his 2020 suspension.

From the 2017 season regular season finale up until the beginning of the 2021 season, Larson competed in 86 races, and he led 1,694 laps in those 86 races. Yet he only managed to win once. He finished in second place nine times and he finished in third seven times during that span.

Let’s take a look at a few specifics.

In April 2018, he dominated the race at Bristol Motor Speedway, leading a race-high 200 of 500 laps, but he was moved out of the way late by Kyle Busch. Busch went on to win and Larson finished in second place.

In May 2018, Larson started in last place at Kansas Speedway, and he still managed to lead a race-high 101 of 267 laps. But late contact with Blaney mired him back in the pack. He rebounded, but only to finish in fourth place.

Then in July 2018 at Chicagoland Speedway, it came down to Busch and Larson for the win again. Larson made contact with Busch on the final lap to take the lead, but that set Busch up to get revenge. He sent Larson spinning and went on to win. Larson still crossed the finish line in second place.

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Larson drove arguably his best race ever at Darlington Raceway in September 2018, leading 284 of 367 laps, but it wasn’t enough. A slow final pit stop during the final caution flag period of the race and poor execution on the final restart led to a third place finish.

And it didn’t stop there for him that September. In the inaugural race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, he led 47 of 109 laps, but he crashed late and nearly cost himself a spot in the round of 12 of the playoffs.

Then in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway that November, he led 45 of the first 163 laps of the 267-lap race, which may expected due to his prowess on the high line despite the fact that he was not one of the four Championship 4 drivers. But he hit the wall on lap 199 and could only recover to finish in 13th place.

Larson’s dominance at Atlanta Motor Speedway this season was nothing new, either. In February 2019 at the track, he led 142 of the first 223 laps and appeared to be poised to win. But a pit road speeding penalty sent him to the rear, and he wasn’t nearly as fast in traffic as he was out front. He finished in 12th place.

In June 2019, history nearly repeated itself at Chicagoland Speedway, but with Alex Bowman, who had never won a race at that point. Larson passed Bowman for the lead late, but instead of pulling away from him, he was quickly reeled back in. Bowman took the lead and went on to win with Larson in second place.

Even earlier this season in what was just his second race back from his suspension, he probably would have won in his first start at the Daytona International Speedway road course had he not crashed late trying to make a pass.

He ended up securing his first win since the 2017 regular season finale at Richmond Raceway when he won at Dover International Speedway in October 2019.

So can you blame anybody for having flashbacks about Larson’s dominance not leading to wins after this past weekend?

There are a few things to consider before we pretend that this trend is really going to continue in 2021. First of all, this runner-up result didn’t add to his record number of second place finishes on 1.5-mile tracks without a win. That number was nine until he won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway earlier this March to end the drought.

That win alone should have gotten the monkey off of his back, not just at 1.5-mile tracks but in general, considering he did it in just his fourth race behind the wheel of the #5 Chevrolet, an all-time Hendrick Motorsports record. Even with his late fade at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he looks to be back in 2017 form, not 2018 form.

And let’s not pretend that Blaney didn’t earn the victory, despite only leading 25 laps. Despite Larson’s dominance, his win was by no means a fluke.

He was quietly clawing away at Larson’s 12-second lead toward the end of the second stage, bringing it down to seven or eight seconds, and he had the better long run car throughout the entire final stage. Larson didn’t have much left at the end of the race, and the long run played right into Blaney’s hands. It’s not like Larson hit the wall or something.

So at the end of the day, Larson should be fine. Even if he leads late and loses again, this is by no means a continuation of his trend from the last few seasons; he already won this year before this past weekend. Expect him to win several more races this season, perhaps as early as this weekend.

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Larson is set to enter this Sunday’s race, the Food City Dirt Race, as the clear favorite, given his recent success in the Cup Series and his prowess on dirt. This 250-lap race around the four-turn, 0.533-mile (0.858-kilometer) high-banked Bristol Motor Speedway oval in Bristol, Tennessee is the first dirt race for the Cup Series in more than five decades, and it is set to be broadcast live on Fox beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET.