Dun dun. Dun dun. Dun dun.
It was like the scene from Jaws on Sunday, Matt Kenseth leading as the laps wound down at Dover, looking to shake off his gremlins and take a well-earned first victory of the 2016 season. Behind him, however, was Kyle Larson, slowly stalking the Joe Gibbs Racing driver and looking for his first-career win.
The Wise Wisconsinite versus the Crazy Californian, experience versus youth, Toyota versus Chevrolet. Who was going to come out on top?
Larson put his dirt track racing skills on full display, using multiple grooves to slowly catch Kenseth. When he did, he rode the No. 20’s rear bumper like it was Daytona, hoping to manipulate the air and get Kenseth loose. He tried gently nudging Kenseth up the track, a semi-bump and run, but nothing Larson did was able to faze his adversary.
After the race was over, Larson was okay with second saying, “I tried to race [Kenseth] as hard as I could without getting into him to beat him.”
But doing so cost the third-year driver his first-career win. Should he have turned Kenseth to take the victory?
NOT AT ALL
Kudos to Kyle Larson, for running a clean race and refusing to plow his way to victory.
It’s certainly a far different move than the one that occurred at the Whelen All-American Series race at Daytona in 2013.
It was a move that a lot of people called dirty, and it certainly left an impression on him. Lesson learned- and applying that lesson at Dover this weekend showed a lot of maturity for a young driver, especially one who was just one bumper away from a win.
No one would have blamed Larson for doing so – after all, he’s been having a tough season and following his breakout rookie year, many were wondering what happened to the wheelman that battled Kyle Busch for the win at Auto Club just a couple of years ago. Turning Kenseth would have been just another bump in the 2003 champ’s season, another in a long list of problems the team has faced in 2016.
But he didn’t, and not doing so earned himself a lot of respect in the garage. Anybody can run through somebody to win – fans love it and the move’ll make highlight reels for years to come – but it takes a certain finesse and control to pass cleanly and not push the issue if you can’t. Larson, a notorious dirt track racer, has both in spades and exhibited them on Sunday.
“I may have gotten into him once. But I’m not going to do anything dirty,” Larson said. “I respect Matt Kenseth a lot. He always races me with respect, and I try to do the same with him.
“I’m still early in my career,” Larson said. “I don’t want to make anybody mad or make any rivals. You can see there’s some drama in the sport, and it takes drivers years to get over it.”
Perhaps he was thinking of Kenseth’s feud with Joey Logano last fall. As many of you know, Kenseth was spun out by Logano last fall at Kansas. It cost him a shot at the championship and led him to return the favor to Logano a few weeks later. No doubt that was in the back of Larson’s mind as he stalked Kenseth.
Both drivers were going for a Chase-clinching win, and the racing was among the best for the lead all season. The fact that they ran so cleanly is what Kenseth, especially, would call quintessential racing – going all out without resorting to spinning out the competition. It might not have resulted in a victory for Larson, but spinning Kenseth out would have tarnished what should be a momentous occasion in any young driver’s life.
The wins will come for Larson, and he’ll be able to fully enjoy the triumph at NASCAR’s highest level.
A MISSED OPPORTUNITY
Kyle Larson’s decision to race Matt Kenseth clean in the closing stages of Sunday’s AAA 400 Drive for Autism was noble, and likely earned him some respect among in the garage. However, given Larson’s current situation in the points, and even career, the Californian should’ve done whatever it took to win the race.
Let’s face it: Larson needs to win.
After an impressive rookie campaign in 2014, Larson’s No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team’s has struggled with inconsistency for the last two seasons. The former sprint car star’s managed average finishes of only 19.3 and 20.9 (so far), respectively, in the last two years to date, despite a combined 13 top 10s.
Top five finishes have been fleeting. Winning opportunities? Virtually nonexistent.
Even after a strong run in Dover, Larson sits back in 21st in the series standings, nearly a full race’s worth of points behind the Chase cutoff, and his team’s inability to string together good runs doesn’t bode well for the future.
With that said, he might come to regret not using the ‘ole chrome horn on Matt Kenseth at the Monster Mile.
Sure, Larson gained some respect as a clean driver, and there’s plenty of time for him to try to make the Chase on points or snag a win somewhere else, but let’s be realistic here. How many more shots is he likely to see?
Looking beyond the Chase, there’s also a fear that Larson could get left behind.
The rookie class has come out swinging to start 2016. Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are both contending for top 10s every week, and both drivers are in position to compete for a spot in the Chase grid, both on points or with a trip to victory lane.
Larson’s 2014 Rookie of the Year competitor Austin Dillon has picked things up in his third year, too. Dillon sits 10th in the points going into the All-Star Race, courtesy of three top fives and six top 10s.
It’s hard to believe this after Larson’s standout rookie season, but the 23-year-old is in danger of becoming an afterthought. At this stage in his career, if Larson can’t begin to deliver some results, car owner Chip Ganassi may have to look elsewhere for talent.
Traditionally, the second and third years have been when young drivers begin to “get it”, when they start delivering on their potential. That this moment still hasn’t happened for Larson conjures up a lingering worry that he won’t become one of NASCAR’s elite.
A win on Sunday would’ve gone a long way towards keeping those worries at bay. Instead, the fears will continue to creep into the garage area because, as the great Bobby Unser once said:
“Nobody remembers who finished second, but the guy who finished second.”
About the author
Sean returns as a ringer in 2017, contributing once a month because he (gasp!) is living it up in the big city without internet. While he's not consuming race news on the Twitter app and reddit he's writing a ton of short stories and paying the bills by working in marketing.
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