Not too long ago, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver went 98 starts in NASCAR’s premier series without a trip to victory lane.
Then came start No. 99.
In August 2016 at Michigan International Speedway, a late restart with eight laps to go saw Larson get the jump on Elliott. Larson wound up celebrating with his steering wheel thrust out the window and Elliott was left lamenting, “I hate to let my guys down like that.”
It has become a common refrain from the Hendrick Motorsports driver.
More than a year later, Larson now has five Cup wins. After a crushing second-place finish to Kyle Busch last week at Dover, Elliott sits at 70 Cup starts and zero wins.
“(Elliott) has probably ran second as many times as I did before the first win and been close just as often as I have, maybe even in some cases more often,” Larson said Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Larson finished second four times before his triumph. Elliott has had to settle for second five times. Two of those have been to Larson at Michigan.
“I put myself in a lot of positions to win throughout the first two-and-a-half years of my NASCAR career and I seem to kind of choke, I guess, late in the races,” Larson said. “But in each of those losses I had, I learned something from each of them and I became calmer at each of them.”
For Elliott, who is in the second round of the Cup playoffs, there’s far less, “I hate to let my guys down like that.”
The second-year driver is shouldering more of the responsibility.
“I appreciate my team and their efforts today,” Elliott said on Sunday. “The pit stops were great and they kept us in the ballgame. I didn’t.”
Larson has noticed the change.
“He seems extremely mature so I’m sure he’s dealing with it fine,” Larson said. “So far this year, he has dealt with all the close finishes way better than he had last year. I think that is a case of him learning from each of those losses and just becoming calmer and more mature. He will win, and when he wins one, he is going to win a lot, similar to kind of what I did this year.”
But before the start of the playoffs, Elliott disagreed with the notion that his reaction to close losses has “evolved.”
“The circumstances have been different,” Elliott said the week before the playoff opener and an encumbered second-place finish. “When a race didn’t end the way that I wanted it to end because it’s something that I did, I’m going to take a lot of blame, I’m just going to own up to my mistakes. I’m going to be frustrated with the fact that I know I didn’t do my job correctly. When it’s out of my hands, I can’t do anything about it, those are the days you just have to recognize I couldn’t do anything about it.
“But the ones that frustrate me the most are the ones I know I could have done something different to fix it.”