LONG POND, Pa. – One more corner, and Kyle Larson would’ve entered an impressive club.
Saturday at Pocono Raceway, Larson was on the verge of becoming the ninth driver – and first since 2007 – to earn four consecutive points victories.
Of the eight drivers that have pulled off the feat, seven are NASCAR Hall of Famers. The outlier, Harry Gant, was no slouch himself.
Instead, Larson’s left-front tire blew and sent him into the Turn 3 wall on the final lap, handing the win to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman.
As a result, Larson will start from the rear in a backup car for Sunday’s second race of the Cup doubleheader weekend (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
“I didn’t know if I was out of fuel or something,” Larson told reporters when asked if he had any warning prior to the tire failure. “Then it finally shredded shortly before I got into (Turn) 3.
“Huge bummer. But we had another fast car and feel like we all did a really good job today executing again perfectly. We just had a tire let go.”
As Larson’s backup car was being prepared in the garage, his crew chief, Cliff Daniels, looked over the failed left-front tire with Goodyear personnel.
“There’s a couple spots on the tire where, through like the outer portion of the tread, it’s got a cut through it,” Daniels told NBC Sports. “And the tire is so destroyed that we can’t tell if the cut went through the whole thing.
“Also, the sidewall of the tire is really chewed up but nobody had sidewall issues all day, so I would be hard-pressed to say it’s a sidewall issue. The tire was destroyed and we ran, you know, the length of the front straightaway with a destroyed tire.
“So, we don’t have a conclusion. I think it’s probably one of those cuts that we saw. We just can’t find it the whole way through.”
Before the tire failure, it appeared that Larson would come out on top again despite being markedly less dominant than he has since mid-May.
Larson felt that Kyle Busch (led race-high 30 laps, finished second) and William Byron (led 13 laps, finished third) were initially “quite a bit better” than he was. But by the end of the second stage, he felt he had the fastest car in the field.
Bowman proved to be his biggest challenge of the day. He took the lead with 19 laps to go. Shortly afterward, Larson moved into second.
Thus began the game of cat and mouse.
“When I got to second, I thought that I would pass Alex fairly easy just because I was a lot better than him the run before,” Larson said. “But it seemed like in clean air, his car was really good. I just couldn’t get by him.
“So, I got a little deflated. Then there was moments again where I was like ‘I’m gonna get him now’ and I exited with him off the tunnel (turn) getting in (turn) 3, and then he got better in the tunnel (turn) and I got worse.”
But with three laps to go, Larson found his opportunity.
“He got really tight off of (Turn) 1, and I was still turning good enough to where I could get runs on him,” he said. “So, I was able to get him to adjust his entries a little bit and mess his angles up on exit. Then, I got the run I needed finally.”
And that was seemingly that. Until it wasn’t. Larson, a racer’s racer, knows anything can happen.
“That’s how racing goes sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes, you’re lucky. I’ve won races where the leaders had a lapper spin in front of him late or something’s happened. It’s just the way it goes.”
As for his crew chief, Daniels was glad that he and his team’s next opportunity was coming in one day instead of seven.
“Any time you don’t have things go your way, you certainly want to get back on the horse and ride again,” he told NBC Sports. “That day is tomorrow.”