NASCAR Barometer: Larson Extends Win Streak

NASCAR Barometer: Larson Extends Win Streak

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Kyle Larson extended his winning form Sunday by taking the inaugural checkered flag for the NASCAR Cup Series at Nashville Superspeedway. Being a new venue for the series there was on-track practice and qualifying, but that still didn't give the other 39 drivers enough of a chance to beat him. The hot afternoon on the slippery track was a tough one, too. The track conditions and unknowns of the new venue drove attrition to a higher level than normal with eight cars failing to make it to the finish. However, Larson successfully avoided those pitfalls and led 264 of the 300 laps in yet another dominating performance that now puts him atop the winner's list with four victories in 2021.

While it may be hard to envision Larson losing his momentum anytime soon, the rest of the field will have two chances to take it away at Pocono Raceway. The long Pennsylvania triangle will host another double-header weekend after trying out the back-to-back format for the first time there last season. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin won those races last year, but neither has visited Victory Lane yet this year.

UPGRADE

Kyle Larson – Larson drove past Chase Briscoe on the final restart of the second stage to take the lead and ensure that Hendrick Motorsports cars would win both opening stages of Sunday's Ally 400. Larson was then in prime position to start the final stage from the front as the race progressed to the finish, which was an

Kyle Larson extended his winning form Sunday by taking the inaugural checkered flag for the NASCAR Cup Series at Nashville Superspeedway. Being a new venue for the series there was on-track practice and qualifying, but that still didn't give the other 39 drivers enough of a chance to beat him. The hot afternoon on the slippery track was a tough one, too. The track conditions and unknowns of the new venue drove attrition to a higher level than normal with eight cars failing to make it to the finish. However, Larson successfully avoided those pitfalls and led 264 of the 300 laps in yet another dominating performance that now puts him atop the winner's list with four victories in 2021.

While it may be hard to envision Larson losing his momentum anytime soon, the rest of the field will have two chances to take it away at Pocono Raceway. The long Pennsylvania triangle will host another double-header weekend after trying out the back-to-back format for the first time there last season. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin won those races last year, but neither has visited Victory Lane yet this year.

UPGRADE

Kyle Larson – Larson drove past Chase Briscoe on the final restart of the second stage to take the lead and ensure that Hendrick Motorsports cars would win both opening stages of Sunday's Ally 400. Larson was then in prime position to start the final stage from the front as the race progressed to the finish, which was an opportunity he did not waste. Larson cruised to his fourth straight victory, including the All-Star Race, in another dominating performance. The No. 5 team is at the top of its game right now, and they are showing no sign of letting off the gas anytime soon. Larson finished fifth in his last visit to Pocono Raceway and has six top-10s from 10 starts at the track.

Ross Chastain – We've been watching Chastain consistently improve each week, and fantasy players willing to choose him at Nashville were rewarded with a runner-up finish. It was Chastain's best finish of the season and came on a good day for Chip Ganassi Racing overall. He led four laps and held off Hendrick's William Byron in the impressive afternoon. His finish closed the gap in points between him and a playoff spot, but with races dwindling, his playoff hopes may require a win. More races like Sunday's could make that a real possibility, however. Nashville was his second top-10 in as many races, not including the All-Star Race where he won a stage of the Open, and his second top-five of the season. His average Pocono finish from four starts is 29.3, which he should improve upon this week.

Aric Almirola – Almirola needed a change in fortune, and that is exactly what he got in Nashville. His car was quick from the start, and he turned in a stunning qualifying lap to capture pole. It was the first race, aside from the Daytona 500, that he started better than 14th, and that track position made all the difference, too. He turned it into fourth-place finish, which was his first top-five of the year and just his second top-10. That may have been the return to form fantasy players have been waiting to see before selecting him again, and the likely improved starting position this week at Pocono could help that trend continue. He finished third and fifth in the two 2020 races there, which would be another big boost to his confidence if he can replicate it this week.

Daniel Suarez – Suarez produced one of his best races of the season so far in Nashville with new team co-owner Pitbull in attendance. He only qualified 22nd, but through a mistake-free afternoon he worked his way to a confident seventh-place finish. That was his third top-10 finish of the season and his best since the Bristol dirt race. While the team hasn't been turning in top-10 finishes each week, they have demonstrated consistent potential to get them when opportunity arises. That was the case Sunday in Nashville and should continue to be the same throughout the remainder of the season. His top-10 Sunday puts him 11 points behind Chastain in the championship standings, and has him knocking on the door of the top 20. 

Kurt Busch – Sunday's eighth-place result was Busch's third consecutive top-10 finish including the All-Star Race. The string is a long-awaited end to a top-10 dry spell that started back in March at Las Vegas. The length of that slump means he is now in a position where his best chance to get back into playoff contention despite being 17th in the standings would be through a win. With regular season races winding down, it will be difficult for him to make up enough ground on points alone to secure one of the top 16 positions in the standings. Pocono is a place he could get the job done, however. He won three times at the track and led 35 laps in the second race of last year's double-header.

DOWNGRADE

Ryan Blaney – Blaney found himself behind before the green flag even waved Sunday at Nashville. The Team Penske driver suffered rear-fender damage prior to the race and was called down pit lane, giving up his top-10 starting position, to make repairs before the race started. He was a lap down after the first round of pit stops and then suffered a brake failure that sent him into the outside wall and out of the race. It was a short and frustrating afternoon for the Atlanta winner who is trying to rediscover some consistent good form. Pocono has been good to Blaney in the past, having won in 2017, but he has just one top-10 in the last five visits.

Tyler Reddick – Reddick lost control returning to the track following his first green-flag pit stop. He simply pushed too hard on the flat and narrow pit exit, and spun through the grass onto the circuit to bring out the caution and disrupt the first cycle of pit stops. He luckily suffered only minor damage and was able to return to the race to salvage an 18th-place finish. However, the chance for a top finish was gone and he recorded his second consecutive finish outside of the top 15. Neither of last season's Pocono races were good for Reddick, but he should only improve this week. His average finish from the two starts, his only in the series at the track so far, is dismal at 32.5.

Chris Buescher – Buescher hit debris entering the corner with less than 15 laps remaining in the first stage, which cut his tire and sent him into the outside wall. The incident was especially painful for the Roush Fenway Racing driver since he is fighting to retain the final playoff position in the standings. His situation is precarious since if just one driver who has not yet won this season gets to Victory Lane it will be Buescher who will then be on the outside looking in. Buescher's only series victory came at a rain-shortened Pocono race in 2016, and he has gone on to score two top-15 finishes at the track since then. He'll need some more of that winning luck this week being 25 points behind Reddick in 15th and 24 points ahead of Kurt Busch in 17th.

Cole Custer – A top qualifying effort at Nashville wasn't enough to save Custer from his 2021 season woes. The Stewart Haas Racing driver delivered a seventh-place qualifying effort for Sunday's race but was one of the many drivers who fell afoul of brake issues during the event. The trouble left him limping to pit road with a flat rear tire. After initial inspection in the pits, the car was rolled to the garage for more extensive work. By the end of the race, Custer was last among the cars still running and more than 40 laps behind. The team has just two top-10 finishes so far this season and is 27th in the championship standings. Custer has a best Pocono finish of 16th from three starts with an average result of 19.7.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Chase Elliott – The No. 9 team made a strategic decision not to pit under caution in the final laps of the opening stage at Nashville, and that choice left Elliott to win the stage and capture the points that went along with it. While his pace wasn't enough to challenge Larson, Elliott was still having a good afternoon and crossed the finish line in 13th place. However, problems arose after the race finish. After complaining about a vibration in the final laps NASCAR officials then disqualified him from the race for having five loose lug nuts. After that ruling, it was as if Elliott had never even participated. He now must reassert himself this week at Pocono where he has seven top-10s from 10 starts and finished fourth three times. 

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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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