Splitter to Spoiler: Kyle Larson proves hes the most dominant NASCAR driver in 2017

Fourth-year driver proving this is his breakout season while Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to struggle in return to NASCAR

Gary A. Vasquez—USA Today Sports
NASCAR Cup series driver Kyle Larson (42) celebrates following his win of the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

Through the first four races of the season, Kyle Larson was the runner-up three times and ran out of gas while leading the Daytona 500 with one lap remaining. He was the very definition of a tough-luck loser on nearly every occasion with a chance to already have three checkered flags.Sunday at Auto Club Speedway was finally his chance to shed the bridesmaid title. After starting on the pole, leading 110 laps and winning the first stage, Larson collected the second win of his young career in the Auto Club 400 in Fontana in triumphant fashion.Despite four late restarts and having to battle through drivers with old tires, the California Kid wouldn’t be denied a win on Sunday.”I was staying as calm as I could be, but also frustrated at the same time,” Larson said in Victory Lane. “It seems like every time I get to the lead at the end of one of these things, the caution comes out and I’ve got to fight people off on restarts. …”This is just amazing. We have been so good all year long, three seconds in a row. I’ve been watching all the TV like ‘he doesn’t know how to win’, but we knew how to win today, so that was good.”Larson is often grouped in with other young drivers like Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, but he’s quickly separating himself from the pack. Currently in his fourth year with Chip Ganassi Racing at NASCAR’s top level, it’s becoming abundantly clear that Larson is realizing his potential in 2017.The win at Michigan last year was a breakthrough moment. But this year is his breakout season.No driver is even close to Larson in the standings, with the No. 42 driver holding a 29-point lead over Elliott heading into Martinsville. Coming off a third-place result last season at the Paperclip, Larson has a chance to come away with another top-five finish before the first weekend off.”I think obviously a lot of it comes down to Kyle,” Larson’s car owner Chip Ganassi said. “I think he’s starting to mature in the series and learning what the cars will accept and what the cars won’t accept in terms of putting a weekend together, putting together practice, putting together qualifying, put together race practice, a race, pit stop after pit stop after pit stop, keeping your head in the game.”I think he’s matured a lot in that manner. I couldn’t be happier for him.”To say that Larson hasn’t scratched the surface in terms of the success he can achieve in NASCAR is an understatement. With a playoff berth sealed, he can just tinker with what works for him over the next 21 races to build toward the postseason.That has to be a terrifying thought for the rest of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field.What’s going on with Junior?It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Dale Earnhardt Jr.NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for 14 years in a row was supposed to return in glorious fashion after claiming a front row start in the Daytona 500. However, his return has been anything but glorious, with no top-10 results through the first five races of the season.The last three races have been slightly better for Earnhardt with an average finish of 15th during the West Coast swing. But the two finishes of 30th or worse in the previous two races have Junior sitting in 21st place in the standings and 152 points behind Larson — who has more than double Earnhardt’s points.At this point last season, Earnhardt already had two top fives and another top 10 while narrowly missing out with an eleventh-place result in Fontana. Junior had three top fives through the first five races in 2015 and had a win and three top-two finishes through the first five races in 2014.Starting slowly might be expected for Earnhardt following his concussion that took away half his season in 2016. But it’s clearly a huge blow for a driver who is typically already in the mix for a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs at this point in the season.Bowyer has No. 14 team back on topThe last four seasons for Clint Bowyer have been trying, to put it mildly. After coming up just short of a title in 2012, Bowyer saw his former team, Michael Waltrip Racing, fold while not finishing any better than 16th in points since 2014 and not collecting a win over that span.But this year brings optimism for the championship-caliber driver.His move to Stewart-Haas Racing in Tony Stewart’s old ride has already changed his results dramatically, with two top-ten finishes and a top five. That top five was a third-place result on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway after running in the top 10 for nearly half the race and competing for the win in the final laps.After one season with HScott Motorsports in 2016, Bowyer knows these results are expected at SHR.”Hell yeah. [These results] better be coming,” Bowyer said with a smile. “When you’ve got a team like this that’s organized and as good as they are, it better be.”Stewart clinched a berth in NASCAR’s playoffs last year, but it was thanks in large part to one win. The consistency wasn’t always there for Smoke in his final season. It appears to be back with Bowyer behind the wheel, which is great news for a team that includes past champions Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.Next up for Bowyer is a trip to Martinsville this Sunday. While he’s never won at the Paperclip, Bowyer racked up six straight top-10 finishes from 2012 through 2014 with MWR. With Bowyer leading 265 laps over that span, don’t be surprised if you see the No. 14 machine up front in Martinsville.