Another late-race defeat leaves Kyle Larson deflated

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DOVER, Del. — Confetti flew through the air, floating from a celebration 75 yards from Kyle Larson.

Instead of being in the middle of hugs and high fives, Larson stood on pit road and tried to reconcile losing another race he seemed to have all but won.

“I run second all the time,’’ Larson lamented. “All the time.’’

It seems that way.

He has been the runner-up in six of the last 14 Cup races, dating back to last year’s season finale at Homestead. It’s an astonishing record but one that is frustrating for so many close calls.

Three times, including Sunday at Dover International Speedway, Larson has finished second to Jimmie Johnson.

“I’m really disappointed,’’ Larson said on pit road. “I’m not going to show any anger like Kyle (Busch).’’

Asked a few minutes later in the media center if this was the biggest disappointment of his career, Larson briefly laughed and said: “That’s a dumb question. No, No, I mean, I’ve had bigger disappointing races, I guess. I don’t know. I mean, it’s disappointing that I didn’t win, but it’s also a positive that we led more than half the race and held off guys on four tires when we had two, and we were at a disadvantage a lot of the times and I was able to hold people off. 

“So I’m disappointed that I didn’t win, but I’m proud of the effort that our team put in and proud of myself for the effort I put in most of the race. Just, yeah, just got to get better.’’

Larson was discouraged by his final restart. He was the leader, chose the outside line — the preferred line — and gave up the win to Johnson, who said in victory lane that he had “the restart of my life.’’

As Johnson celebrated tying Cale Yarborough’s career record of wins, Larson contemplated what went wrong.

Larson spun his tires on the final restart, as he had done throughout the race. Johnson got the lead into the first turn and crossed the overtime line in the middle of the backstretch before the caution came out for a nine-car accident.

The race was over. Johnson was the winner. Larson was second. Again.

“I haven’t had much luck in my NASCAR career,’’ Larson said on pit road. “Gosh, (Johnson)’s the luckiest human being on this planet, but he’s also extremely good and can execute like nobody else.’’

That’s the next step for Larson, who has been fast all season and has many expecting him to be the sport’s next breakout star. He can’t be one of the sport’s next superstars, though, if he doesn’t win.

Keep this in mind. This was Larson’s 124th career Cup start compared to Johnson’s 556th. Johnson has been in more pressure situations with his seven titles and 83 career victories. That includes Johnson’s win in last year’s season finale at Homestead.

Just like Sunday, Johnson beat Larson on the final restart at Homestead. Johnson was on the inside with two laps to go and outran Larson to Turn 1 to win the race and title.

Johnson outfoxed Larson then and beat him again Sunday.

“It’s good to be the leader, but a lot of times you are at a disadvantage being the leader,’’ Larson said. “They can time the restarts better than you. They lag back a little bit. We were both playing games with each other.’’

It is such lessons Larson will learn. If not, he will only face more angst.

“I know he’s hungry,’’ Johnson said of Larson. “I think the wins are going to keep coming for him. They’re never easy when they go away. He’s a great talent.’’

Along with losing a race, what also could hurt Larson is the loss of the five playoff points. Johnson has 15 playoffs points to Larson’s seven (Martin Truex Jr. has a series-high 18 playoff points).

With those points carrying through each round of the playoffs, it could make a difference on who advances.

“Winning is still everything,’’ Johnson said. “That’s where my focus has been. When we get to the end of the year, I’ll start paying attention to points more often, but right now is all about trophies.’’

For Larson, it’s about trophies he doesn’t have.

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