DOVER, Del. — Kyle Larson was the can't-miss future star who tore up the sprint car circuit and would lead a new generation of young talent into the next era of NASCAR.
His promise yet unfulfilled, Larson's path toward prominence has been a slow-burning one in six-plus years in the Cup Series. He has been saddled with mediocre cars that not even his skill — apparent if raw — could salvage, and a fantastic 2017 season seems more a blip than a sure sign Larson would blossom into a perennial championship contender.
On Sunday afternoon at Dover International Speedway, as Larson stood atop his car with a two-year winless streak behind him, perhaps his playoff victory was indeed a preview of a championship celebration ahead.
"It's not a shock, either," Larson said. "I feel like we've been running really well this year."
Larson's wife, Katelyn, shotgunned a beer in a sudsy victory lane bash as he flashed a No. 1 sign behind her, a worthy way to end a 75-race streak without a points-earning victory.
The 27-year-old Larson has been painfully close to grabbing a checkered flag that matters plenty of times since his previous win on Sept. 9, 2017, at Richmond Raceway. Larson had nine runner-up finishes in the Ghip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet over that span and even won the $1 million NASCAR All-Star race this season, though that does not count in the points standings.
He cashed in at Dover with the Monster Mile-stone win (it was the one-mile concrete oval's 100th Cup Series race) that earned him an automatic berth into the third round. Not only has Larson failed to win a title, his team's longtime owner has never won a Cup Series championship, something that has surely chapped an organization with handfuls of IndyCar titles.
"It would be nice to get him that championship that, honestly, he's probably owed," Larson said of Ganassi.
Larson had four of his six career Cup Series wins in 2017, and Sunday at Dover marked his first in the playoffs. He led 154 laps late after pole-sitter Denny Hamlin faded from a dominant early run (he led 219 laps) in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota, opening the door for Larson.
Playoff drivers took the top six spots: Martin Truex Jr. was second, followed by Alex Bowman, Kevin Harvick, Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Chase Elliott and 2018 series champion Joey Logano both took serious blows to their title runs with a rough start to the second round.
Logano failed to start the race because of a broken axle on the Team Penske No. 22 Ford. He eventually hit the track more than 20 laps down and finished 34th.
"We just used our mulligan up," Logano said. "We're not (in) a must-win (situation), but we must do really well in the next two races."
Elliott, who won the fall race at Dover last season and was coming off a victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway, had the engine in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet blow up just laps into the race. He finished last and can't afford another major slipup if he wants to make the third round.
"I don't know where we'll stack up," he said. "I assume we'll have to win one of these next few weeks."
Clint Bowyer and Ryan Blaney join Logano and Elliott as the bottom four drivers in the playoff field.
Truex won the spring race at Dover but didn't have enough down the stretch to catch Larson and complete the season sweep.
"We just ran out of time," he said.
Larson felt like a win or two was within reach on the strength of a sensational run of top-10 finishes late in the summer. He escaped the first round without any serious drama and can now head to treacherous Talladega Superspeedway and then to Kansas Speedway to end the second without any serious concerns.
He's the first driver of the 12 remaining contenders in the third round's field of eight, which will be trimmed to four for the season finale.
"Everybody in this playoff field is going to be stressing next week at Talladega except for me, so that's good," Larson said. "Last time I was at Talladega I was on my lid. I could still end up on my lid next week, but it's not going to matter after this win.
Larson was expected to help bridge the gap between grassroots racing and NASCAR when Ganassi hired him before the 2012 season. Larson made his name by racing all over the country in any series he could find a ride.
He totaled 92 races in 2011 and 123 races in 2012, and he continued to race in the dirt even when he landed his ride with Ganassi. Larson had talked of wanting to pattern his career after someone like three-time Cup Series Tony Stewart, who started his career on dirt tracks in open wheel cars. Stewart in turn guaranteed Larson, who is half Japanese, would be the next big thing in NASCAR.
"If not, you can take everything I own, because I'm that confident," Stewart said years ago. "It's not a matter of if, it's when."
Larson's not there yet — but maybe he's headed in that direction.