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Monday Rundown: Larson looks close

What Kyle Larson did Sunday afternoon at Michigan International Speedway wasn't wrong. It just didn't work out.

Sitting in his wet car -- not his race car, his street car -- the second-year Sprint Cup driver tweeted out: "The traffic flow out of @MISpeedway makes no sense. Hope my guys aren't mad when I'm last to the plane by 30 minutes."

The response from Dale Earnhardt Jr., having just made his 32nd Michigan start, was swift: "You gotta know the tricks, sport!"

Earnhardt was referring to the secret routes and police-escorted pathways out of the rural racetrack, not to mention chopper rides. But he very well might have been speaking to Larson about the kid's Michigan almost-was. No, not concerning the postrace commute, but rather the Quicken Loans 400 itself.

When the caution flew on Lap 126, the No. 42 Target team, led by Larson and crew chief Chris Heroy, elected to stay out on the racetrack, despite the fact that their Chevy was running on fumes.

Why? Because rain -- more accurately, more rain -- was looming over the fourth turn of the massive 2-mile oval. When the leaders chose to pit for fuel, Larson inherited the lead and the plan was to wait to see if the day's third bout of precipitation would end the race prematurely and give him the win and a likely Chase berth.

Larson feathered the throttle while Heroy worked his calculator and spotter Derek Kneeland watched the skies. But the track stayed dry as Larson's tank grew drier. After three laps of sweating it out, he was finally forced to pit for fuel, falling all the way back to 17th as Kurt Busch was handed the P1 spot.

And that's when, of course, it started pouring.

"Yeah, we could see weather coming there ... and just praying that it would get here in time for me to stay out and be in the lead when the rain did hit," Larson explained. "I applaud my guys for trying. ... We are pretty deep in points so we have to take risks like that to make the Chase. I'm happy with the call. I just wish the rain would have come three laps sooner."

"I just wish ..."

Should Larson start writing a book about the first full season and a third of what should be a lengthy Sprint Cup career, "I Just Wish ... " would make the perfect title.

In 54 starts, he has earned 22 top-10 finishes. That's good. Of those top-10s, nine have been top-5 finishes. That's also very good. But three of those top-5s have been runner-up efforts and another three have been third-place finishes, including a rocket rider of a last stanza at Dover two weekends ago that, once again, came up a little short.

Yes, that's all good. Very good. But it's also excruciating. Very excruciating.

"The first one came so early, you know, it was kind of like, 'Man, this first win might come faster than I thought,' " the 22-year-old said during a lengthy chat the week leading into Memorial Day weekend, when he finished a puzzlingly awful 25th, two laps down, at Charlotte. He was referring to the first of his second-place finishes, coming at Auto Club Speedway in just his fifth start of 2014, his rookie of the year first full Sprint Cup season. He laughed as he added: "There were so many top-10s headed into the summer one year ago ... we've had a much harder time doing that this year. It makes me wish I'd appreciated it a little more at the time."

Anyone who didn't appreciate it was in the minority.

Few drivers have barreled into stock car racing's highest ranks with as much hype as Larson, praise that preceded his 2014 freshman campaign by a couple of years. Much of that acclaim came from the drivers who paved the very road he's traveled to get here, sprint car-turned-Sprint Cup all-stars Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne.

But thus far, of those three, Larson's career arc has most closely followed that of Kahne. That's good and bad.

In Kahne's first 46 Cup starts (a decade ago in 2004-05), he scored 17 top-10s. All but one of those were top-5s, including five runner-up finishes during his rookie year alone. In his first four Sprint Cup starts, he scored a pair of second-place finishes and a third.

"Yeah, I could have won my second and third races," Kahne remembered when talking about Larson earlier this season. "And then there were at least a few more that year that we lost in just weird ways. It was tough."

He winced when recalling one particular near miss, when an invisible oil slick at Dover took away a big lead and certain win in the closing laps.

"The good news is that helps you build character and it makes you appreciate it more when the win finally happens," Kahne said. "But the bad news is that, yeah, it totally sucked."

Kahne's breakthrough first Sprint Cup victory came in his 47th start, outlasting Stewart at Richmond one week after a heartbreaking loss at Darlington. He entered that race ranked 19th in the series points standings, suffering through an inconsistent sophomore season after such a crazy great rookie campaign.

Larson is ranked 18th, also coming off a heartbreaker, and also slogging through a frustrating second season after such a spectacular freshman outing, but there have been signs of promise in the past three weekends.

He hopes that he can emulate Kahne by grabbing that elusive first victory soon and then following it up with even more. Kahne won only once in 2005, but followed that up with a series-best six wins in 2006. And although Kahne's career has long been dogged by brutal luck and inconsistency, he still owns 17 wins, five Chase appearances and one of the coveted four gigs at Hendrick Motorsports.

If Larson's Chip Ganassi Racing team isn't expecting much from the upcoming races at Sonoma, Daytona and Kentucky, that's understandable. His small sample of statistics at those tracks isn't good. But his résumé at the next four -- Loudon, Indianapolis, Pocono and Watkins Glen -- is great. Then it's back to Michigan again.

"We finally got our first good run of the year [third at Dover] and followed it up with another top-10 [eighth at Pocono] and then we nearly got our first win," Larson said Sunday evening. "Maybe all of this means we're finally getting some momentum going.

"Top-5s and top-10s mean you're close to winning. Winning means you're in the Chase. Then, who knows what could happen?"

Perhaps he'll finally get on with fulfilling all that promise.

Xfinity Series

There was nothing particularly special about Brendan Gaughan's 12th-place finish in Saturday's Great Clips 250. But there were still plenty of smiles to be found in the Richard Childress Racing driver's pit stall.

That's because rear tire changer Anthony O'Brien was back on the job, seven weeks after suffering injuries in a frightening flash fire on April 24 at Richmond.

O'Brien was changing a tire directly beneath the gas can when the nozzle on the can malfunctioned, spilling fuel that ignited and injured O'Brien, teammate Josh Wittman and Doc Turner, gas runner for driver Eric McClure and who was pitting McClure's car one stall over.

O'Brien suffered the worst injuries of the three, spending two nights in the hospital with second-degree burns to his face. The accident spurred sweeping safety changes by NASCAR, requiring pit crews to don more fire-resistant gear, most notably bulkier gloves and head socks.

Camping World Trucks

Let it never be said that Cole Custer doesn't like flat racetracks. On Saturday night he picked up his second Truck Series win in only a dozen career starts. Both came on flat ovals. This victory was at Gateway Motorsports Park, the egg-shaped 1.25-mile pancake located just east of St. Louis.

His first win came in September 2014 via the equally oblate New Hampshire International Speedway, where he also earned his second career pole position.

Where was his first? At Gateway one year ago, in just his third career start. Of his seven career top-10 finishes, five have come on flat racetracks -- Gateway, Iowa, New Hampshire and Phoenix.

The other two were scored at decidedly non-flat Bristol Motor Speedway and on the road course of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (Mosport).