After leading 269 of 325 laps on Sunday, Kyle Larson came about 8 laps short of winning the Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Kyle Larson easily won the first two stages and dominated much of the race, but still came up short in the end to Ryan Blaney. There are many different variables that could have come into play at the end of the race that contributed to his downfall. We are going to break down those variables and parse-out which were contributing factors and which were non-factors.
The most obvious factor that comes to mind, especially in Atlanta, is tire-wear. While both Larson and Blaney pitted at the same time under green, it could be possible that Larson used up his tires more, especially as he hit lap traffic and cars raced him harder than Blaney, not wanting to get lapped. Also, Larson is aware of his gap either extending or shrinking by looking in his mirror, and from his spotter over the radio. Whenever that gap starts to shrink, it makes sense to push your car (and tires) harder to prevent that from happening any further. In fact, Kyle talked about this quite a bit in his post-race press conference.
“I couldn’t get out to that gap that I could earlier in the race. Ultimately just had to run my tires too hard to try to get that gap, and I didn’t have anything there at the end,” said Larson. “My tires were pretty much gone at that point,” he later added.
Another factor could be that Larson drove too conservatively, too early with the assumption that his dominant car would take him all the way. In fact, we did see Larson driving a different line once he retook the lead from Blaney after the restart. Kyle confirms this in another portion of his post-race press conference.
“I think he (Blaney) just got a lot better that last stage and that changed up my flow of the race a little bit,” said Larson, who won each of the first two stages by more than six seconds. “I could get out to such big leads, and I could take care of my stuff and run the bottom where it was maybe slower, but I could take care of my tires.
Finally, the last factor to consider is the driver who actually won the race, Ryan Blaney. His car seemed to do really well on the long runs all day and only got better as the race went on. Also, there could have been some adjustments that were made either on the last pit stop or throughout the race that gave him an edge; especially since it’s likely Larson and his team made no adjustments give how well he was racing. Blaney hints at this after the race.
“Gosh, we had a great long-run car all day,” Blaney said after climbing from his No. 12 Team Penske Ford. “It took us a little bit to get going. I was pretty free all day, so we made a really good change to tighten me up where I needed it.”
The variables that were largely non-factors for his demise were the cooler track temperatures as the sun began to set or a possible issue with Larson’s car at the end. Cooler track temperatures would have helped the grip of his car and would have helped him conserve his tires more, and there is no evidence or indication that the number 5 car had any mechanical issues.