Kyle Larson closes strong to win at Michigan again

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- When Kyle Larson won the pole and led 80 of the first 108 laps Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, it appeared as if it was his race to lose, and anything less than a win would be a disappointment.

Apparently, looks were deceiving.

Larson didn't feel he had the best car for the FireKeepers Casino 400, a race in which Martin Truex Jr. swept the first two stages. So winning the race Sunday felt special for Larson, even though it appeared it was a race many had penciled him in to win after the drop of the green flag.

Here's the reason it meant something to Larson, beyond a nice Father's Day moment with both his father and son in Victory Lane: The best car in a Michigan race in which there are four restarts in the final 46 laps often doesn't win, thanks either to tires or track position.

Such was the case for Larson, who took over the points lead from Truex thanks to his second victory of the season and his second consecutive triumph at Michigan dating back to his first Cup career win last August on the 2-mile oval.

Maybe it wasn't the thing movies are made of -- although Larson sported a "Cars 3" paint scheme designed to be similar to the character of Lightning McQueen -- but it was something for the memory book.

"The 78 [of Truex] was by far the class of the field, I thought," Larson said. "I know I led a lot of laps, [but it] seemed like whenever he wanted to get the lead, he hit a nitro button and would cruise up to the lead, then check out. He was the class of the field."

And then Larson? Not in Larson's view: Kyle Busch and, on the long run, Matt Kenseth, were better than him.

"I thought we were probably a third- or fourth-place car," Larson said. "To come out a winner, it makes it that much more exciting, I guess. ... For not having the dominant car, to do everything right to get a win today, was special."

Larson took the lead on a restart with 15 laps remaining from Busch, the driver who appeared in control of the last third of the race until a debris caution with 19 laps remaining was called because an official couldn't determine if the debris on the frontstretch was significant. It didn't appear as a significant piece of debris, but it made it a race of restarts instead of what likely would have been a fuel-mileage roll of the dice for many.

Truex, who had taken four tires on a pit stop on Lap 151 of 200 while many others had taken two, restarted fifth with 15 laps remaining. He fell to ninth in three laps for the next restart and then after just a lap and a Danica Patrick accident, restarted seventh. The inside lane, typically not the preferred groove, doomed him to a sixth-place finish.

"Just wrong lane on the restart every single time all day long and couldn't use the best car to win," Truex said in describing his day.

Truex wasn't lying. Busch, after getting beat by Larson on the restart with 15 laps remaining, found himself on the inside lane -- third and fifth -- for the final two restarts and wound up seventh.

Joey Logano, the driver who restarted fourth with five laps remaining might have had the best shot to win thanks to having two fresher tires thanks to putting on right-side tires with 18 laps remaining. But even he couldn't do anything to catch Larson and wound up third.

Chase Elliott, who restarted on the inside in second for the final restart, had to settle for second for the third consecutive Michigan race, including the second consecutive one behind Larson.

"He would have had to have made a bobble for me to get to him," Elliott said about the final five laps. "He had probably about a second on me. I wasn't close enough to get to him or make a move."

While it was the same 1-2 finish as far as driver names, this victory had a much different vibe than the one last August. Larson's victory served as just another reminder that he remains a serious contender for the title. Finally in his breakout year, he has two wins to go along five runner-up finishes (sixth if counting the All-Star Race).

He has led a resurgence at Chip Ganassi Racing, which as an organization has run the best among the teams supported by Chevrolet, which lost one of its top organizations in Stewart-Haas Racing to Ford this year.

"Stewart-Haas, they were one of our key teams," Chevrolet's NASCAR manager Alba Colon said. "It was sad to see them go. We are very honest about that. All the teams got together and realized, you know what, the game has changed.

"We have to work different, we have to work more together, we have to do things different. To see how Chip Ganassi Racing has a step up in the game has been fantastic."

About the only thing not going totally Larson's way is that he ranks third in the series in playoff points, the points that drivers will have added to their totals in the first three rounds of the playoffs when the points are reset. Truex has 20, Jimmie Johnson (thanks to three victories) has 15 and Larson has 13. Drivers get one playoff point for a stage win and five for a race win.

"We've been close to winning so many other races, finished second six different times, [it] would be nice to have 30 more bonus points," Larson said. "We'll keep chipping away at it."