Kyle Larson sounded like so many defeated drivers who could only watch as Jimmie Johnson hoisted his 10th winner's trophy at Dover.
"I figured it would be tough to have a shot at Jimmie," Larson said.
While Johnson has left a trail of contenders in his dirty air over the last 13 years at Dover, Larson at least left the track feeling a bit like a winner. The NASCAR prodigy scored his first top-five finish of the season, a needed boost for Larson as he muddles his way through a sophomore slump. Larson had five straight top-six finishes to open last year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship races, a sign that the Chip Ganassi driver had truly arrived.
All he's arrived at this season is wondering what's gone wrong.
Larson finished behind Johnson and Kevin Harvick at Dover for his best result of the season. He has six finishes of 25th or worse in just 12 races and missed the Martinsville race because he was briefly hospitalized after a fainting spell. The reigning rookie of the year hasn't been the same in the No. 42 Chevrolet as he was last year when he lived up to the hype as one of NASCAR's next great drivers.
"I feel like we haven't challenged for many wins yet this year, or any wins really," Larson said. "Where last year, we had been close a couple of times already. We have some work to do. We have been getting a little bit better and then we kind of got off the last couple of weeks. Hopefully, starting now, we are getting the speed back in our cars."
Larson did lead 90 laps at Bristol before he faded to seventh. But he has led only three other laps and has just four top 10s — and Dover was his first in six races. The 22-year-old Larson is 20th in the points standings headed into this weekend's race at Pocono Raceway. He finished fifth and 11th with one pole in last season's two Pocono races.
Larson had eight top-five and 17 top-10 finishes last season, and his blistering results in the Chase had him hopeful he would emerge as a championship contender in 2015.
"It was nice how we ran in the Chase last year and that definitely gave our team a lot of confidence going into this season," he said. "That's why I think we have been a little bit disappointed in the way we have started off the year, because of how well we ended. But we know our team is capable of running at that level."
Larson said rules changes that reduced horsepower and downforce have affected his results.
"I think they have affected us," he said, "but then we have also had races where we have had a lot of speed. (It could be) something I do at the end of the race that gets up a bad finish. I don't feel like any race we have ran this year we have finished where we deserved."
Larson has scaled back his Xfinity Series commitments this season, giving him one less look at the track under race conditions. He won twice in NASCAR's second-tier races last season and competed in 28 of 33 races. This season, it's been just four races, with three top 10s.
"I like not running as much in the Xfinity Series," he said, "but then again, I do think it helps my Sunday stuff out because you get to come down pit road three or four times in an Xfinity race which helps a lot getting that practice before your main job on Sunday. Getting to learn different lines and stuff helps, too. But it is relaxing when you only run one car."
While so many of NASCAR's greats — from Jeff Gordon to Tony Stewart — have heaped praise on Larson for years, he's still learning his way. Larson skyrocketed from sprint cars to NASCAR's top series in just three years. His first full season in stock cars was in 2013.
Larson welcomed a son in December with his longtime girlfriend and is balancing fatherhood with his growing popularity.
He was all smiles when he showed off his son on the pre-race show during a pit road visit with announcer Michael Waltrip.
Larson would surely love to hold him in victory lane.
He can only hope Dover's finish is the jumpstart he needed to get there.