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Rough patch has Larson falling behind in Chase race

July 11, 2014, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com

Three straight finishes of 28th or worse have knocked rookie to 17th in standings

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LOUDON, N.H. -- For this NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie, given his 13th-place spot in the standings that has him in a provisional berth to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, combined with an average finish of 16.7 -- better than series mainstays Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart -- and blatant evidence that he can hang at some of NASCAR's biggest tracks, there isn't a whole lot more that a driver could hope for in his debut season, just a year removed from racing in the Nationwide Series.

If you were thinking this all refers to rookie phenom Kyle Larson, guess again.

Over the course of the past few weeks, there has been a major shift in momentum for Larson and his fellow Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Austin Dillon -- who the first paragraph describes -- with the driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet cooling off considerably since a pair of top-10s at Pocono and Michigan in June and several other impressive runs throughout the first half of the season.

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While Larson can thank his three top-five finishes at Fontana, Fort Worth and Pocono for keeping him ahead of Dillon in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year race, it's the Richard Childress Racing driver who is currently in position to earn the chance to take home the bigger trophy that comes along with winning the Chase.

Considering Larson was seventh in points less than a month ago, it seems inconceivable that he could be on the outside looking in right now, but it's true.

"Our chances (to make the Chase) were really good up until three weeks ago," Larson said Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "Then we lost power steering at Sonoma and finished in the high 20s. Kentucky we were pretty fast and blew a right-front tire and then at Daytona, we got caught up in a typical Daytona crash and got a 36th-place finish or something like that. I think we went from being tied for seventh to (17th) in points over three weeks. It was looking great up until now.

"It makes you stress out a little bit just because each week it gets closer and closer to the Chase. Now we have fallen to where we have to fight really hard again. It makes it nerve-racking, but we are all pretty close. I think there are six or so guys that are pretty close in points. I have to have a couple of good runs and hopefully get back up there. It would be nice to get a win soon for sure."

A win would be huge for the No. 42 team, but might not be entirely necessary. With eight races left before the Chase field locks in, including Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 301 (1 p.m. ET, TNT), and just 11 different drivers to win a race thus far, it's likely that there will be competitors without a victory racing for a championship come September.

Given that the standings are so bunched up all the way from Larson, with 482 points in 17th, to sixth-place Joey Logano (546 points), as long as the 21-year-old gets back on track and regains the consistency he enjoyed early in the season, he should be able to work his way back up and sneak into the Chase.

Still, the rough patch is a bit humbling.

"I knew at some point with how well we were running everybody is going to run into some bad luck. I was just hoping it wouldn’t be three weeks in a row worth of bad luck," he said. "I figured we may have some bad luck one week or two weeks in a row not three. It makes you stress out coming here to New Hampshire, hoping that you get a good finish. You can't have four bad finishes in a row. I mean I understand the whole luck factor so it was humbling, but didn't surprise me."

As far as a fourth bad finish in a row, odds are he shouldn't worry a whole lot. While he's never raced here in a Cup car before, he did finish 11th last month at the similar 1-mile Dover track and has a Magic Mile victory under his belt from his K&N Pro Series East days in 2012. He also placed second on the speed charts in opening practice on Friday.

And while Dillon's aforementioned numbers -- as well as a pair of top-10 finishes at Daytona -- are impressive, Larson has plenty himself, perhaps none more so than his adjusted pass efficiency. Measuring the percentage of successful pass encounters under green flag conditions, Larson's 53.07 percent ranks third behind only Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth, unprecedented for a rookie.

"I feel like we have been a little bit stronger than Austin mostly so I think once we get back to finishing some races hopefully we can pad that gap between him and myself in the rookie points.

"It sucks the last few weeks I think he's been the highest finishing rookie, but I feel like our stats have been a little bit better than his so far this season. Just got to keep sticking with it and trying to set it as a goal to beat him every weekend as well as get top 10s."

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