Keselowski’s celebration should have been Larson’s.
Instead, Larson lost the lead with 22 laps to go on the final pit stop and finished third despite leading 284 of 367 laps — the most laps by a driver at Darlington who failed to win the race.
What has become a trend — Larson leading many laps but not winning — wasn’t enough to bring Larson down Sunday night. Yes, it was disappointing not to win but it was hard to be heartbroken when he had what he considered his best car “by far” in more than a year.
“I’ve run second or third a lot,” Larson said. “I guess you get used to the disappointment or whatever you want to call it. I can handle it, I guess, better than most people.”
Sunday marked the fourth time Larson has led 200 or more laps in a Cup race and he won none of those.
Since last year, Larson has finished second or third in 20 of the 61 races (32.8 percent). Last year, he won four races, finished second nine times and third one other time. This year, he remains winless but has five runner-up finishes and two third-place results, including his Southern 500 finish.
For as much as Larson dominated the race — at times he led by more than 10 seconds — it came down to a pit stop on Lap 345. Larson entered as the leader but was nipped by Keselowski at the exit of pit road.
“We didn’t get beat off pit road by much but it was enough,” Larson said.
Keselowski said he got a “perfect launch” from his pit stall after the stop and got beside Larson as they traveled down pit road at 45 mph.
“You’re looking at him, and then you’re looking at your tach or whatever that electronic crap is, and you’re looking at all of it, and you’re trying to maximize it to be perfect, and oh, I hope I wouldn’t speeding,” Keselowski said after his first career Southern 500 win. “That was what I was saying as soon as I got to the (pit exit) line.
“I think I got him by half a foot, and you’re just waiting, oh, here comes the speeding penalty, here it comes, here it comes, and the second the spotter keys the radio for that first time, you like cringe, and then he said, ‘okay, (22) to go.’ You’re like, man, that’s like waiting for your death sentence, and it didn’t come. So I’m thankful for that.”
Larson’s car was strong on long runs but that didn’t help him off the restart and Keselowski pulled away.
“I was really loose that last run, trying to run hard to stay with him,” Larson said. “Just too loose to stay close. I felt if maybe I could have stayed close I could get to him at the end of the run.”
Instead, Larson fell back to third when Joey Logano passed him and had to watch someone else celebrate a win Larson seemed poised to take.
“We’ve just got to keep bringing good cars,” Larson said. “Eventually you put yourself in position enough times, the wins will start coming. It’s kind of been the story of my career a little bit. I’ve been close and close and close.”