By John Haverlin
If Kyle Larson’s final pit stop were a mere tenth of a second quicker, he probably would have beaten Brad Keselowski off pit road and won the Southern 500.
Larson’s No. 42 car had looked untouchable all night. He swept the first two stages and led 284 of the 367 laps at Darlington. But when it came down to the key moment of the race, it was Keselowski’s crew that turned a lightning-fast stop instead of Larson’s.
Once again, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver came away with a frustrating ending to what could have been a perfect night. For two consecutive races, he’s settled for something short of what he might’ve deserved. It’s not that his pit crew was bad during the race; it just didn’t have the extra bit of speed necessary to top Keselowski’s group.
“We didn’t get beat off pit road by much, but it was enough,” Larson said. “Being the control car at any racetrack is huge, and we just didn’t have that. … Just lost a little bit of our edge there for the restart and I was pretty loose on that last run and lost a lot of ground there.”
Although he didn’t dominate Bristol two weeks ago, he was the pole winner and finished second to Kurt Busch. For the final 13 laps of that race, he pushed as hard as he could to catch the Stewart-Haas Racing car.
The Bristol night race is an event Larson has said is the one he wants to win more than anything in NASCAR — other than maybe the Daytona 500. It was agonizing for him to not win after going to victory lane the day before in the Bristol Xfinity Series race.
Now to come up short again after dominating one of NASCAR’s most historic races is just another punch in the gut.
But Larson sees the silver lining: He gained two playoff points and earned 54 of a possible 60 points overall. That’s the type of performance that can help him in a few weeks when the competition intensifies during the postseason.
“We got some stage points, which is good for the playoffs,” he said. “Disappointed, but happy about the car we brought.”
So was there a difference for the No. 2 team during the race? Well, actually there was.
Winning crew chief Paul Wolfe admitted the pit crew did something new, but he wouldn’t reveal the secret.
“If you watch closely, you’ll probably see a difference, but I’m not going to talk about it a lot,” he said. “We’ve had an up-and-down year on pit road, and we continue to try and work on that and get better. We did some different things tonight, and we’re still learning — a good bit of confidence for those guys going into the playoffs.”
Keselowski’s Ford was a top-five car all night, and Team Penske finished 1-2, so you can’t take that away from Joey Logano and his race-winning teammate. Penske has been a ‘B’ team compared to the Big Three of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. most of the year, but it found something in the setups this weekend that no one else could replicate.
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my pit crew,” Keselowski said. “We were running second and that last stop they nailed it and got us out in the lead. I thought Kyle was really good, and he was flat-out flying. … In 2015, we led a bunch of laps and lost it on the last pit stop, and today my team won it on the last pit stop.”
Does Keselowski know what his team did to help him beat Larson off pit lane?
“I’m not privy to that information, so I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “But I’ll take it, whatever it was.”