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Larson dazzles with three-wide-middle move, salvages second to Truex at Darlington

DARLINGTON, S.C. — On a day when anyone not named Martin Truex Jr. was fighting to be the best of the rest, Kyle Larson nearly stole the spotlight from the NASCAR Cup Series season’s only three-time winner at Darlington Raceway. Credit his blistering run through traffic in the final stage, including a bold, three-wide maneuver worthy of the highlight reels on one of the toughest tracks around.

Second place was the best the Hendrick Motorsports driver could muster in Sunday’s Goodyear 400, as Larson recovered from an early pit-road speeding penalty and nearly joined Truex among the ranks of the multiple-race winners. The effort was remarkable not just for how it soothed the heartache of three straight subpar finishes, but also for how the pressure he applied down the stretch rated on the ferocity scale when no one else could.

“We definitely needed to get a good finish. I thought we were going to get one last week and I messed that up,” Larson said, making a nod to his strong performance last weekend at Kansas that unraveled late. “Three bad weeks in a row, and to come back and contend for a win and finish second and get good stage points after speeding at the end of the first stage, too, yeah, it was a good day.”

RELATED: Official results | Truex tames Darlington

Truex led 248 of the 293 laps, stretching his advantage to several seconds at certain points. He had few serious challengers until Larson’s late rise to lurk just a few car-lengths back as the sun began to set.

With plenty of slipping around on Darlington’s well-worn surface, Larson made the most of the scenario with a daring move with eight laps remaining, splitting the middle of Tyler Reddick’s No. 8 Chevy on the high side and Ryan Newman’s No. 6 Ford in the low groove. Larson’s No. 5 Chevrolet tiptoed through on the narrow 1.366-mile layout and emerged in an albeit vain attempt to keep Truex within reach.

Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

“Well, they’re both really aggressive drivers, so I didn’t want to get stuck behind them because I knew if I didn’t clear them then, I would definitely not have an opportunity to get by or get close to Martin,” Larson said. “I saw a door open up a little bit, and I stuck my nose in there and came out the other side. It was pretty intense, but that’s what I felt like I needed to do at that point to give myself a shot to win, but even once I cleared them, I was struggling at that point and Martin was getting away from me.”

Larson noted the sense of urgency he felt when making the move. From No. 5 crew chief Cliff Daniels’ vantage point, it had some elements of a hold-your-breath moment.

“A little bit,” Daniels told NASCAR.com. “From what I’ve seen of him, just over the years and watching his sprint-car stuff, he knows how much lap traffic can hurt you the next corner if you have the opportunity to get them in this corner and you don’t, so a lot of times, his mindset is to go ahead and get lap traffic now, whenever that moment is. And I get it. He knew what was around him, he knew what was at stake and certainly the win was on the line and he had to get all that he could.”

Even so, Larson said he had to force himself to stay calm and not to abuse his equipment as he closed in.

“When the leader is in front of you it is tougher to remind yourself. But in a way, I maybe was too patient at one point,” Larson said. “I got to his back bumper in (Turns) 1 and 2 and I could see he was struggling in front of me, and I thought, well, if I am just patient here and stay behind him and put some pressure on him, maybe he’ll use his stuff up or get into the wall in 3 and 4 because he was running so close to it. So I was just hoping that he would make a mistake. Looking back if there was something I could do different I would have taken advantage of that opportunity and tried to get to his inside and maybe tried to clear him off of 2 and maybe block him in my dirty air the rest of the race.”

MORE: Cup Series standings

Larson never quite got that chance, and Truex pushed his margin to a 2.571-second gap by the checkered flag. Even though Larson may have gently second-guessed his late-race pursuit, he had his crew chief’s vote of confidence.

“He’s so in control of himself in that environment. He knows what’s around him,” Daniels said. “When he gets to race sprint cars and his late model, there’s so much driver element to those that you kind of learn your surroundings that he knows when to go and he knows when to be smart. So I trusted him the whole time we were in traffic and just hoped we had enough to get the 19.”

Larson gained three spots in the Cup Series standings, reversing three consecutive weeks of misfortune. That stretch included an 18th-place day at Richmond Raceway, a last-place result after a way-too-early engine failure at Talladega Superspeedway and 19th at Kansas Speedway after leading a race-best 132 laps.

Daniels was among those savoring the turnaround for a team that has been among the circuit’s strongest this year.

“We were OK today, had to overcome a speeding penalty, and every week, we’re just trying to build on the week before,” Daniels said. “It’s been a tough last three weeks for the results, but I think especially last week, we had a very dominant car. Today, I don’t know if it was a dominant car or not because we never really had a chance to show it, but I think we were close. The competition’s certainly not going to slow down, so we can’t either.”