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Late-race fade derails Kyle Larson’s powerful performance at Atlanta

Kyle Larson sat poised to snap the string of unique winners in the NASCAR Cup Series this season Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. His No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet had led a considerable bulk of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 and his second victory in a three-week span seemed within sight.

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Larson’s dominant day unraveled in the closing laps as Ryan Blaney eased past him to lead the final nine laps at the 1.54-mile Georgia track, bringing the count of 2021 winners up to a half-dozen. Larson was left to settle for his third top-five finish in the last four Cup Series races, a result that left him disappointed but still trying to see the bright side in his first year with the No. 5 group.

“I don’t know, I think he just got a lot better there that last stage and it kind of changed up my flow of the race a little bit,” said Larson, who led a race-best 269 laps. “I could get out to such a big lead and then I could take care of my stuff and run the bottom (groove), where it was maybe slower, but I could take care of my tires. He was fast there, and I just wanted to maintain that gap that I had, so I had to run in the faster part of the race track and just use my stuff up. And then, he was just a lot better than me there late in the run. Hate to lead a lot of laps and lose, but we had a really good car that we brought to the track.”

Larson swept both stages, and though he lost the lead to Blaney on a pit-stop exchange early in Stage 3, he quickly regained the top spot and rebuilt his margin on the rest of the field.

That reign started to fray down the stretch as Blaney closed back in. Larson complained over his team communications that Joey Logano, a teammate to Blaney with Team Penske, had initially held him up during Blaney’s final pursuit. No. 5 crew chief Cliff Daniels tried to encourage Larson’s confidence by saying he could pass him back, but the 28-year-old driver was unable to mount another challenge and finished 2.083 seconds behind at the checkered flag.

“I mean, it’s hard to say. I definitely would have had a better shot had I gotten by Logano when I got to him,” Larson said. ” But, yeah, I mean, it just was hard. My tires were pretty much gone at that point. I was sliding around. I just didn’t get through traffic good at the end.”

Larson’s most recent start at Atlanta — February 2019 — also ended with heartache. He led a race-high 142 laps but finished 12th after a pit-road speeding penalty. Larson also was runner-up in 2017 at Atlanta, where he has four top-10 finishes but lacks a victory.

Still, Larson took some solace in the team’s speed and performance, expressing hope that more wins — like his March 7 victory at Las Vegas — would follow.

“Yeah, I mean, I would have loved to win today to really pick up some momentum. But, yeah, I mean, we’ve had the fastest car most weekends,” Larson said. “If we can continue to evolve and continue to get better, yeah, I mean, we can do great things. Our pit crew has been really good. Our car has been really fast. I feel like for the most part I’ve been doing a good job.

“With all that Cliff and all the guys making good decisions on the box, yeah, we can definitely go out there and keep contending. If we can contend as much as we are, yeah, I mean, we can win a lot of races.”