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Column: Larson finishes 2nd again, takes over points lead

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Kyle Larson finished second at Phoenix International Raceway and then headed to the beach for a brief family vacation.

There was no lamenting his third consecutive runner-up finish because Larson is the current points leader of NASCAR's top series. His positioning atop the standings is almost as good as a trip to victory lane.

Larson has now finished second in four of the last five Cup races dating to last season's finale, and he was in contention for the victory in the Daytona 500 until he ran out of gas on the final lap and finished 12th. A two-tire stop put him in position to win Sunday at Phoenix in overtime, but a slip on the restart cost him any chance of running down leader Ryan Newman in the two-lap sprint to the finish.

"I mean, I guess little mistakes or inexperience or whatever you want to call it," Larson said of his bridesmaid status. "Hindsight is always 20/20. But I should have went a lane up in one and two. I should have known to just stay close to Newman. That's what I wish I would have done. But, yeah, it's weird ... I finish second like every week. Maybe we'll turn them into wins soon."

Sure, wins would be great, but at this pace, Larson doesn't need them. He's using consistency to run up front and stay in contention for a spot in NASCAR's playoffs. It's the beauty of NASCAR's points system that is often overlooked.

Yes, a win just about guarantees a spot in the 16-driver field. But there have not been 16 individual race winners yet in this format, and additional slots go to the highest-ranking drivers in points.

Collecting points is how Newman nearly won the championship two seasons ago despite not winning a race, so not making it to victory lane is not a deal breaker.

Of course, the way he's running, no one expects Larson to fall short of winning a race for much longer. He's got one career victory, but many believe he'd have more if not for his own mistakes and his desire to not ruffle any feathers. Larson wants to run clean, so when he found himself bottled with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the restart Sunday, he didn't force the issue.

Afterward, he admitted letting this win slip away "stings" but he wasn't very hard on himself because it's hard to be disappointed when you're the points leader.

Larson is part of the rapidly changing face of NASCAR , in which young drivers are pushing toward the front and passed the veterans. Behind him in the standings are Chase Elliott (third), Joey Logano (fifth) and Ryan Blaney (sixth). At 26, Logano is the oldest of the bunch.

EVERYTHING IS GREAT

Kyle Busch dropped the phrase "everything is great" in response to every single question he was asked at Phoenix about a meeting with NASCAR to discuss a scuffle with Joey Logano. Then he said it again Sunday after finishing third in a race he likely would have won if not for a late caution brought out by — Logano.

His response channeled the attitude Marshawn Lynch often took in the NFL, when he only showed up to interviews so he wouldn't get fined. But Busch is putting "Everything is great" to a good cause.

Busch said Monday that his charity and will sell T-shirts with "Everything is Great" across the front. The shirts are $22 — the same number as Logano's car — and there's no shipping or handling. Busch may have been in a lousy mood at Phoenix, but he's at least trying to use it now to raise some money.

BIG FINISHES

There's been so much attention on the fast starts of Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon, that somewhat overlooked through the first NASCAR month have been the Joe Gibbs Racing rookies.

But Daniel Suarez finished seventh at Phoenix and Erik Jones was eighth in his Furniture Row Racing entry for career-best finishes for both Cup rookies. Suarez has all of four Cup starts to his name, while Jones now has seven. Suarez was aided on the late caution by a two-tire pit call.

"The guys did an amazing job," Suarez said. "They just did exactly what they had to do: a fast pit stop, two tires and the car was almost as good as four tires."

Jones felt like Sunday could be a good day for his team, and he'd tested at the track in early February.

"I think it helped a lot," Jones said of the test. "It was able to at least give us a good baseline to start with. I think every time we start coming back to these tracks for the second time we're just going to be that much better and that much stronger. It was a big deal. I hope we test somewhere else this year for sure."

___

More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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