After the duel between desperate drivers had ended, Matt Kenseth was asked if his victory Sunday at Dover International Speedway removed the sting from previous defeats.
Kenseth, who snapped a 17-race winless streak, smiled.
If only runner-up Kyle Larson had gone through such struggles. Instead, the driver stamped as the sport’s next great talent when he arrived full-time in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014, is winless in 87 career starts.
The 23-year-old raced with the hunger of a driver looking for his first win Sunday. When challenged, he fought to stay in front. When behind, he charged to get back into the lead.
Some may argue he was too impatient when racing Carl Edwards with less than 50 laps left in the 400-lap race. After they made contact, Edwards’ slammed head-on into the inside wall and the SAFER barrier, leaving Edwards to ask who was under him. Told who it was, Edwards responded on his team’s radio “What an idiot.’’
Told Larson apologized on the radio after the incident, Edwards told FS1 it was “nice of Kyle to say something.’’
Larson later said of the incident: “Not sure if Carl got loose, went to block me, or if I came up or what. I got into him, turned him into the inside wall. So I feel bad about that, if it was my fault. Even if it’s not my fault, I feel bad about that.’’
Larson regrouped and hunted Kenseth when the race resumed. Then Larson faced a challenge from Chase Elliott, a rookie seeking his first win and a driver some look at with the same fawning gaze they shared for Larson two years ago.
Their battle lasted a few laps. They ran side-by-side and nose-to-tail, whetting the appetite of fans of what they might see for years to come if both drivers reach the level of success predicted.
Larson finally broke free and chased Kenseth, who led by one second with 14 laps to go. Kenseth’s team had changed only two tires on its last stop; Larson’s team changed four tires. Advantage Larson. Kenseth’s lead fell to a half-second with 10 laps to go, then one third of a second with five laps to go.
Larson dived under Kenseth, and they ran side-by-side, but Larson couldn’t surge ahead with three laps to go. Larson tried to go high the next time through Turns 1 and 2, but it didn’t work. By then, it was too late. Larson could not get close enough to make another move.
“God!’’ Larson shouted on his radio after finishing second. “Man!”
Car owner Chip Ganassi tried to console his stallion.
“Good job today, kid,’’ Ganassi radioed Larson. “Good job. Our day is coming.’’
“If I didn’t have to race (Elliott), I think I would have had him,’’ Larson said.
“Yeah, you would have,’’ Ganassi said.
Instead, Larson was left with a runner-up finish after being a lap down early in the event. It was his best finish in a season that has had few highlights, and his best finish since another runner-up in the Chase race at Kansas in fall 2014.
In an era where putting the bumper is becoming more the norm in racing, why wasn’t Larson more aggressive with his front bumper against Kenseth?
“I had gotten close to his bumper a couple times,’’ Larson said. “I may have even got into him once. I didn’t want to do anything dirty. I respect Matt Kenseth a lot. He’s definitely in my eyes the cleanest racer out there. He always races me with respect. I try to do the same with him.
“So I was just going to try and race him as hard as I could without getting into him to beat him. He’s sitting in Victory Lane, and I’m not, so maybe I need to do something a little bit different, but nothing crazy to take him out or anything.
“I’m still early in my career, so 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.’’
How much longer, though, will it take for Larson to score that first victory?