Larson finally has Dover’s number: Wins historic 100th race at Monster Mile

Kyle Larson celebrates in Victory Lane after winning Sunday’s race at Dover. Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder

DOVER — Numbers reigned supreme in the Drydene 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway on Sunday.

It marked the historic 100th Cup Series race at the track known as the “Monster Mile” since it hosted its first race in 1969 and capped a historic 50th anniversary season at the normally treacherous — but tame on Sunday — one-mile concrete oval.

Kyle Larson does a burnout after Sunday’s win. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

However, it was the No. 42 piloted by Kyle Larson that shone brightly atop the scoring pylon in the middle of the track’s infield as he snapped a 75-race winless streak that spanned two years in the Drydene 400 on a gray, cloud-covered autumn afternoon.

Larson, a 27-year-old driver from Elk Grove, California, gained notoriety rising through the dirt-track ranks as a sprint car standout.

Kyle Larson’s crew celebrates. Special to the Delaware State News/Pete Hinson

He put those crafty skills on full display as he masterfully maneuvered his Chevrolet through packs of lapped traffic over the final 50 circuits to hold off Dover dynamo Martin Truex Jr.’s Toyota by 1.578 seconds at the conclusion of the Drydene 400, the first of three NASCAR playoff races that comprise the playoff’s Round of 12.

With the win, Larson automatically advances to the Round of 8. And with the series heading to the crapshoot that is Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama next week, the triumph was even more important.

“It’s really critical,” said Larson, who celebrated the sixth victory of his career with a long burnout down Dover’s front straightaway. “Everybody in this playoff field is going to be stressing next week at Talladega except for me, so that’s good.

“The last time I was at Talladega I was on my lid (roof) and I could still end up on my lid next week, but it’s not going to matter after this win. What a day.”

Larson finally found the key to victory lane in his 12th Cup Series start at Dover. His best previous finishes at the track were a pair of seconds in the spring races in 2016 and ’17 and he had a career average finish of 8.0 at the monster, only finishing outside of the top 10 once.

“I’ve kept saying that I felt really close to winning (at Dover) or anywhere right now,” Larson said. “Our pit crew has been doing a better job, our team has been doing a better job, and I’ve been doing a better job. So, we’ve just got to keep it going.”

Kyle Larson raises his trophy after winning Sunday’s race. Special to the Delaware State News / Chuck Snyder

Alex Bowman finished third, followed by Kevin Harvick and pole-sitter Denny Hamlin, who dominated the first half of the race, leading 113 of the 120 laps in stage 1.

Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, 11-time Dover winner Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top 10. The top six finishers were all playoff contenders.

Hamlin, who rocketed to the pole position for Sunday’s race with a track record lap of 166.984 mph on Saturday afternoon, dominated the race’s first stage.

Hamlin seized control of the first half of the race, winning the first stage, before Truex rose to the top of the field when he passed him for the lead on lap 229, with 12 laps remaining in the second stage.

However, Truex’s pit crew had difficulty during a tire change during the round of pit stops between the second and third stages and Larson inherited the lead, while Truex fell all the way back to seventh place.

Larson pulled away from the field at the start of the final stage and built a comfortable five-second advantage over Hamlin with 100 laps to go. He upped his lead to 6.5 seconds over Truex, who had risen to second by passing Hamlin with 93 circuits left.

Truex pulled to within almost a second of Larson with 50 laps remaining as the two battled through lapped traffic before Larson was able to rebuild the cushion that carried him to the checkered flag, his first since September 2017 at Richmond.

Kyle Larson (42) drives ahead of Martin Truex Jr. (19) to win the Drydene 40 at Dover. Special to the Delaware State News / Chuck Snyder

Track position proved to be critical on a day in which it proved difficult to pass at Dover.

“It meant everything, to be honest with you,” Truex said. “We got the lead there and got that win in stage two and had a pit stop where we had an issue and lost track position and the whole third stage, we were behind.

“We were close to catching (Larson) there at the end. We got close, it’s just unfortunate there. We win and lose as a team and the (pit crew) will clean it up, I’m sure. It’s cool to come home second after that as hard as it was to pass out there.”

It was an odd day at the often-treacherous layout at Dover, as no driver encountered a brush with the walls. In fact, the only caution period not for the end of a stage occurred when Chase Elliott blew his engine on lap 8.

The race was completed in two hours, 56 minutes and 49 seconds for an average speed of 135.734 mph. The lead was swapped 14 times among nine drivers, mostly taking place during pit-stop cycles.

It wasn’t a ride in the park for everybody.

A couple of the dozen championship contenders — defending series champion Joey Logano and last week’s Charlotte winner Chase Elliott — suffered major disappointments within the race’s first eight laps.

Logano, who was supposed to start the race 14th, was forced to drive into the garage area for repairs during the pre-race warmup laps with a mechanical issue with his rear axle. Meanwhile, Elliott’s engine expired just eight laps into the race as he was forced to settle for a 38th-place finish, last place in the field.

Denny Hamlin leads the field at the start at the Monster Energy Cup Series Drydene 400 at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“I just had an engine failure of some sort,” said Elliott, who started fifth. “Unfortunately, we don’t really know what it was just yet. It just quit running. It didn’t really seem like anything was off. We were just kind of making laps and then obviously had a failure. It’s an unfortunate way to start this round for sure.”

Logano returned to the racetrack on lap 24 and rode around for a 34th-place finish. Ryan Blaney, another playoff driver, suffered brake issues later in the race and finished a disappointing 35th.

Larson avoided such demons and walked away a winner on a historic day at Dover.

“After that first stage I kind of changed my driving style up and I felt like I made the car better at the same time and it really benefitted our long runs,” said Larson. “That’s as good as I’ve ever been around cutting the bottom (of the track) here. It was just a great combination.

“I can’t thank all the fans enough for coming out. This cool weather was nice for a change. This is unbelievable. I’ve always wanted to win a Cup race here. I’ve been close a number of times, so to get a golden Monster (Trophy) is pretty sweet.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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