Kyle Larson Grabs First Win and Chase Birth at Michigan

Kyle Larson has made steady growth since he entered the Sprint Cup scene as a regular in 2014. As a rookie he was the bridesmaid twice, finishing second at Chase races in Loudon and Kansas. While he couldn’t close the deal, it was evident the talent was there. Larson followed that performance up with a bit of a sophomore slump and a highest finish of third. Though the finishes weren’t there, he did lead a career high 90 laps at Bristol, but drifted at the end, finishing seventh. Larson also missed the sixth race of the season at Martinsville due to a fainting spell during an autograph session, caused by dehydration. But in 2016, Larson entered with a boatload of confidence and determination. He was finally able to use that talent towards making the Chase and grabbing his first career victory.

Kyle Larson Grabs First Win and Chase Birth at Michigan

At the start of the Pure Michigan 400, Larson was in a must-win situation if he wanted to make the Chase. While Larson was right on the cusp of the top-16 in points just a few weeks ago, a string of bad finishes, capped by a spin on the final corner at Watkins Glen sending him from a sure-sixth place finish to 29th, put him well back of the Chase cutline. The loss of all the points in one race was frustrating, to say the least, for Larson.

“It just stinks, we were going to have another good points race, and instead we ended up with a wrecked car. Our team will keep working hard and doing whatever we can to get the Target team into the Chase.”

Bristol

The following week at Bristol did not go as planned with a middle of the pack finish. The race weekend at Michigan showed that the team was focused on the task at hand. They looked to give Larson a car that could compete for victory. In both practices Larson was fifth fastest. He turned in a quick lap in qualifying, with a 12th place starting spot. Being near the front at the drop of the green flag meant that the rest of the race could be spent focusing on making steady gains.

Larson stayed around the top-10 most of the day. In the last quarter of the race, he found himself out front with one of the best cars. Battling fellow rookie Chase Elliott and Series champions Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, the race seemed to come down to the final green flag pit stop. Elliott and Larson pitted at the same time but Larson’s crew struggled, allowing Elliott to grab the lead. The slow stop was so costly that Harvick and Keselowski (who only took two tires) passed the Chip Ganassi Racing driver. But Larson would not let this one slip away. He powered by the Michigan native, Keselowski before passing Harvick for second. The last domino was Elliott. He seemed to have a lead that was insurmountable with the laps winding down. But when Michael Annett blew a tire, it set up one more restart.

The Final Restart

Back in June at the first Michigan race on the schedule, the young Hendrick Motorsports driver found himself lining up alongside Joey Logano in a battle for the victory. Elliott however missed a shift and settled for a disappointing second place finish. Only one driver has ever got his first career win at Michigan. It was Dale Jarrett in 1991, in his 29th career start. Would Elliott find redemption in August of 2016? He too was making his 29th career start in the Pure Michigan 400.

Lining up next to Larson for the final restart, both drivers spun their tires and faced aggressive pushes from the two drivers behind them to get up to speed as quick as possible. Both drivers got loose. Elliott could not hold off Larson, who cleared him off Turn 2. Elliott managed to hold off the hard charge from Keselowski and Harvick but by then it was smooth sailing for Larson who grabbed his first checkered flag in his 99th career start. The margin of victory was just over a second.

The win marked the first time in a NASCAR weekend all three drivers won their first career NASCAR race (Brett Moffitt in the Camping World Truck Series and Michael McDowell in the XFINITY Series). The victory also broke a big winless streak for car owner Chip Ganassi. More importantly Larson no longer has to sweat in the final two races whether or not his Target Chevy will be in the Chase. He does, however put a lot more pressure on the drivers on the bubble without wins, including Chase Elliott.

Chase Implications

The victory knocks Ryan Newman below the cut line by 15 points, behind Larson’s teammate Jamie McMurray. Austin Dillon and Elliott, who once seemed quite content to ride out the regular season with safe, consistent finishes now are starting to sweat again. Dillon is just 21 points to the good and Elliott is 27. One bad race, whether their own wrongdoing, a mechanical failure or an unavoidable wreck could leave them on the outside looking in. The pressure is now on them to follow Larson’s footsteps and snap their own winless streak to start their career and thereby clinch themselves a Chase birth.

Chris Buescher meanwhile suffered the worst luck to start the race. Just a few laps in, he suffered an engine issue, fell behind and could never fully recover. While he is still in the top-30 in points and therefore still eligible for the Chase with his Pocono win, he is now only seven points up on 31st place David Ragan. The pressure for better finishes is on his Front Row Motorsports team.

The young drivers proved at Michigan that while the big names in the Sprint Cup garage can be favourites to win week to week, no one can ever be counted out to be competitive and race for a win. With just a handful of laps to go, Elliott, Larson and rookie Ryan Blaney were all right in the mix to win, with Larson coming out on top. Chase Elliott now must use his frustration of letting a second straight Michigan victory slip through his grasp into motivation to be competitive in the next two weeks. Meanwhile, Larson can now focus on the next item on the checklist: a championship.

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