It’s easy to believe that Kyle Larson will have other chances to earn a playoff spot with a win this season.
But what if Sunday was it?
What if he fails to make the Chase because he didn’t put the bumper more aggressively to Matt Kenseth late in Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway? What if politeness and decency are trumped?
Larson showed restraint Sunday in his duel with Kenseth. Drivers say it doesn’t take talent to wreck somebody out of the lead, but it takes talent to pass them for it. While Sunday’s finish might not have pleased fans wanting to see drivers squabble, Larson showed that there can be civility in sports.
Now the question is if he’ll be penalized for it.
With 14 races left until the Chase field is set, Larson has time to put himself in a playoff position. Four of his six best tracks (based on average finish) remain with Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, Darlington and Pocono. He has an average finish between 8.0 and 9.0 at those tracks.
Yet, challenges remain.
Kenseth’s win was the seventh in the 12 races this season for Joe Gibbs Racing. Of the 14 races left before the Chase field is set, Gibbs cars won nine of those events a year ago. A question all of the garage is asking — not just Larson and his team — is how to beat the Gibbs cars? One of those Gibbs drivers, Carl Edwards, wrecked after contact with Larson with less than 50 laps left. Will that change how Edwards races Larson in the coming weeks? How could that impact things for Larson?
After Sunday’s runner-up finish at Dover, Larson is 43 points out of the final Chase spot — nearly a full race. A month ago, Larson was 24 points out of the final Chase spot. He’s fallen 19 points further behind in the last five races.
Take a closer look at his recent runs. It’s hard to imagine he’ll have any worse four-race stretch than what he did (28.5 average finish) before Dover.
Yet, that stretch was only slightly worse than his average finish (27.8) for races at Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Auto Club Speedway earlier this year.
Challenges remain for Larson and his Chip Ganassi Racing team.
So, should Larson look back upon Sunday with regret?
Time will tell, but had he knocked Kenseth out of the way, would Larson have looked back upon his first career Cup win with greater regret?
— Sunday marked the second consecutive Sprint Cup race at Dover won by a two-tire pit stop.
In the 2015 fall race during the Chase, Kevin Harvick pitted on Lap 359 for two tires and restarted second to Matt Kenseth, who did not pit. Harvick won and Kenseth finished seventh.
Sunday, Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson were the only leaders to change two tires during a pit stop on Lap 349. Johnson never made it to the finish but Kenseth won.
“I’m surprised more guys didn’t do two tires at the end,’’ said Jason Ratcliff, crew chief for Kenseth. “But it worked out for us. Earlier we had done four and lost our track position. It was a good opportunity for us to get that back.’’
— Is Martin Truex Jr. the unluckiest driver in the Sprint Cup garage?
A week after dominating at Kansas only to see his chances to win end because of an unusual part failure, Truex seemed to be in a good spot to challenge for the win Sunday. He restarted in the second row, behind leader Jimmie Johnson on the outside lane with less than 50 laps to go.
Johnson’s car locked in gear and he didn’t get up to speed, triggering a chain-reaction accident that ended any hopes of Truex winning.
— Chase Elliott’s career-high third-place finish Sunday was his eighth top-10 finish of the season. He has more top-10 results this season than every Cup driver except Kurt Busch (10 top 10s), Kevin Harvick (nine) and Kyle Busch (nine).
— Joe Gibbs Racing has won 19 of the last 37 points races, dating back to last year’s Coca-Cola 600.
— Ryan Blaney scored his fifth top-10 finish of the season. It’s the most for the Wood Brothers in a season since Ricky Rudd had nine top 10s in 2005. This is the first season the Wood Brothers have run the full schedule since 2008.
The last time the Wood Brothers had double digits in top 10s was 1996 when Michael Waltrip had 11 top 10s in 31 races.
— Danica Patrick, who was two laps behind the leaders by Lap 90 on Sunday, escaped the multi-car crash late to finish a season-best 13th. Her previous best this season was 16th at Martinsville.