NASCAR Barometer: Larson Claims His First Win

NASCAR Barometer: Larson Claims His First Win

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Kyle Larson leveraged a 12th-place start to piece together the fastest machine in the closing laps of Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 and claim his first victory in the Sprint Cup series and an entry into the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup. To come back from the disappointment of losing a possible Chase spot to Chris Buescher and from a terrible outing in Bristol to score a comprehensive victory in Michigan was a remarkable turnaround for Larson. The victory ensures his place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and comes at a perfect time, as just two races remain before the playoffs get underway.

This week the NASCAR Sprint Cup series heads to Darlington Raceway for a Sunday night race under the lights that often proves to be one of the most exciting races on the calendar. Fantasy players should continue to pay close attention to recent results as drivers gear up for the old-school racing expected at Darlington, and just two races remain for drivers to book a spot in the Chase. Strategies and risk-taking will only get more aggressive as the next two races play out.

UPGRADE

Kyle Larson – Larson overcame a terribly disappointing race in Bristol to be one of the top contenders at Michigan on Sunday. The young driver fighting for his first Sprint Cup win excelled again at the Michigan circuit where he finished third earlier this season, and found himself with the fastest chassis in the closing laps of Sunday's race. He

Kyle Larson leveraged a 12th-place start to piece together the fastest machine in the closing laps of Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 and claim his first victory in the Sprint Cup series and an entry into the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup. To come back from the disappointment of losing a possible Chase spot to Chris Buescher and from a terrible outing in Bristol to score a comprehensive victory in Michigan was a remarkable turnaround for Larson. The victory ensures his place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and comes at a perfect time, as just two races remain before the playoffs get underway.

This week the NASCAR Sprint Cup series heads to Darlington Raceway for a Sunday night race under the lights that often proves to be one of the most exciting races on the calendar. Fantasy players should continue to pay close attention to recent results as drivers gear up for the old-school racing expected at Darlington, and just two races remain for drivers to book a spot in the Chase. Strategies and risk-taking will only get more aggressive as the next two races play out.

UPGRADE

Kyle Larson – Larson overcame a terribly disappointing race in Bristol to be one of the top contenders at Michigan on Sunday. The young driver fighting for his first Sprint Cup win excelled again at the Michigan circuit where he finished third earlier this season, and found himself with the fastest chassis in the closing laps of Sunday's race. He streaked away from the final restart of the race to pull ahead of Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski to take a hard-fought win. He has two top-10 finishes from his two career Sprint Cup Darlington starts, and another top finish could be in order as he continues his charge to earn a place in the season-ending playoffs.

Chase Elliott – Elliott drove a fantastic race in Michigan on Sunday. His deft driving led him into the lead late in the running as pit strategies began to play out. After all the cars cycled through the final stops, he found himself confidently inside the top-five with a chance to out-drag Larson on the final restart of the race. He didn't quite accomplish that mission, but he did enough to come home second in a finish that will only help him earn a spot in the Chase. The driver did all he needed to do to put himself in position to capitalize. He crashed out of the Darlington race last season in his only Sprint Cup start at the legendary speedway.

Brad Keselowski – Despite not being the fastest of the Penske Racing teammates through practice and qualifying at Michigan, Keselowski ended up finishing the best among them on Sunday. The weekend was a master class in turning around a seemingly disappointing effort to maximize results. He finished third in Sunday's race, which was his third finish inside the top three in the last five races. Efforts like Sunday's in Michigan often make the difference between success and failure in championship runs, and Keselowski appears to be demonstrating the type of form that will carry him all the way to Homestead and the Sprint Cup finale. Keselowski has never won at Darlington, but he did finish as the runner up at the track last season.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney was another driver who successfully turned around the less than optimal hand he was dealt. The rookie driver was expected to be strong at Michigan, but wasn't a standout favorite when it came to practice and qualifying. Instead, he waited until the race on Sunday to show what he really had in his hand. He finished the race fourth for his second top-five finish of the season. Results like Sunday's could give this team hopes of qualifying for the Chase, but he will need to score a win in the next two races in order to accomplish that this year. Blaney did race at Darlington last season, but he was only able to finish 30th after starting inside the top 10.

Jimmie Johnson – It may not have been the result we all would normally have expected from a name like Jimmie Johnson, but his top-10 run at Michigan was indicative of a turnaround in form for which the No. 48 team has been searching desperately since the start of summer. Sunday's sixth-place finish was Johnson's sixth top-five of the season and just his 10th top-10. The results he has posted at this point of the season have been a serious step backward from what we would normally expect from the six-time champion. He now has three top-10 finishes in the last five races and could be on an upward swing in form, which could cause a lot of concern in the garage from the competition.

DOWNGRADE

Kyle Busch – Busch encountered trouble for the second week in a row. His early spin on Sunday made for a long climb back into contention for a good finish. Instead, he now has to look toward the next two races to build momentum before the Chase begins and he has to defend his title. He led three laps and finished seventh at Darlington last season, and will need another race like that before the championship playoffs get underway. His 19th-place finish in Sunday's Pure Michigan 400 was his second consecutive finish outside of the top 20. He needs a better outcome at
Darlington to boost his confidence.

Martin Truex Jr. – A pit stop error led to a damaged rear fender that cost Truex gobs of time later in Sunday's race. The No. 78 had respectable practice times throughout the weekend, but one simple mistake led to an extremely frustrating afternoon for the Chase contender. When the distance was complete, Truex was classified in the 20h position, which was his third finish of 20th or worse in the last five races. Truex scored a top-10 last year at Darlington, but he also has a top-five that came back in 2012. He needs to regain some confidence with two good finishes of 15th or better before the Chase begins to be considered a top contender for this year's Sprint Cup.

Chris Buescher – Despite having a win in his pocket and being just inside the top-30 in points, a 35th-place finish like Buescher had in Michigan is a serious disappointment. With just a seven-point gap to 31st-place in the points Buescher has very little wiggle room in his quest to make the Chase. He needs to be consistently scoring top-30 finishes in order to be assured of a championship playoff spot, but performances like Sunday's raise more than a few questions about his ability to do so. Buescher still has an unlikely win in his pocket, but he needs to close the deal by running quietly consistent races inside the top-30 runners in order to realize the dream he can nearly taste.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Where was Stenhouse all weekend? Fantasy players could be forgiven for thinking Stenhouse never showed up at Sunday's race. The Roush Fenway Racing driver was coming off of a second-place finish at Bristol just one week ago but failed to make a mark in practice, qualifying or Sunday's race. The No. 17 started Sunday's procession in 29th position and only managed to work his way forward just two spots to finish 27th. Stenhouse continues to be a driver who fantasy players should only consider at certain tracks. Michigan is clearly not one of those circuits and neither is Darlington. He has never scored a top-10 at the unique South Carolina oval.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Jamie McMurray – McMurray's eighth-place finish wasn't all he hoped for, but it was more than enough to help his season end with some positivity. McMurray was consistently competitive throughout practice for Sunday's Pure Michigan 400. While he was never favored to win the race, he leveraged a strong machine to post one of his better finishes of the season. After Sunday's result, McMurray has just eight top-10 finishes and one top-five. Three of those top-10 finishes came in the last three races, and this run of results could help insure his 15-point gap to 16th-place in points, which would earn him a spot in the Chase. Look for McMurray to continue his average Darlington finish of 15.9 to help his Chase efforts this week.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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