Kyle Larson caps 10-win season with first NASCAR Cup Series championship

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kyle Larson has been the best driver all season, and he proved it Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.

Larson won his first NASCAR Cup Series championship, capping a 10-win season with a victory in the season finale.

Larson’s momentous season comes just one year after the Hendrick Motorsports driver was suspended by NASCAR and fired by his former team for using a racist slur during a live-streamed iRacing event in April 2020.

“I can’t believe it,” Larson said, his voice quivering. “I didn’t even think I’d be a racing a car a year-and-a-half ago. To win a championship? Crazy!”

Larson held off Martin Truex Jr. by 0.398 seconds, as the 2017 Cup champion closed in on Larson in the final laps.

“Second hurts, I’m not going to lie, especially with the car we had and the job the guys did,” Truex said. “That’s racing as they say, and sometimes you’re just not on the right side of things. … But (Larson and the No. 5 team) had a hell of a season, congrats to them.”

The other two Championship 4 contenders were not far behind. Denny Hamlin finished third and Chase Elliott finished fifth. Ryan Blaney came home fourth, the first of the non-playoff drivers.

Hamlin, who found speed during the second half of the race, tried to close the gap on Larson and Truex following the final restart but ultimately ran out of laps. He praised Larson, offering the new champ “Special congrats.”

“Any time you win 10 races in a year, you’re absolutely a deserving champion,” Hamlin said.

Larson’s pit crew has been stellar all year, and they shined again on a pit stop following a caution on Lap 283 for David Starr. The No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports crew helped Larson gain three positions during pit stops as Larson launched to the lead from the No. 1 pit stall.

“I did not think we were going to win and without that pit crew on that last stop, we would not be standing right here,” Larson said after the race.

Larson and Hamlin restarted on the front row with Truex and Elliott on row 2, and Larson took off with the lead. Truex surged as well, though, and passed Hamlin to take over second.

The third stage took its first turn just as green-flag pit stops began.

While running fourth behind the other three title contenders, Truex and his team opted to pit on Lap 247, and they caught a big break. While Truex’s pit crew was servicing his car, Anthony Alfredo triggered a caution after plowing into the outside wall.

But the 19 pit crew was able to get Truex back on the track before the leaders crossed the start-finish line, and that made a huge difference.

When Elliott, Hamlin and Larson pitted, Truex cycled to the lead, and led the field to a restart on Lap 255. The other three championship drivers restarted in the top 10, and by Lap 260, all four title contenders were running 1-2-3-4 again.

STAGE TWO

Kyle Larson smiles after wining the pole during qualifying for the NASCAR championship race.

Kyle Larson smiles after wining the pole during qualifying for the NASCAR championship race.

As it so often happens in NASCAR’s championship race, the four title contenders ran 1-2-3-4 for much of the second stage, despite three interrupting cautions. And that’s exactly how they finished Stage 2 with Larson winning it, followed by Elliott, Hamlin and Truex.

Although Truex showed off the fastest car in Stage 1 on longer runs, Larson and Elliott shined in Stage 2 and battled each other for the lead throughout the second half of the middle segment. Elliott kept the pressure on his teammate, but he wasn’t able to make the pass for the lead while working the inside line of the desert track.

After the Championship 4 drivers, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano closed out the top-10 in the second stage.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Chase Briscoe were among the drivers to wreck during the stage.

STAGE ONE

Truex took the green-and-white checkered flag after 75 laps to win the first stage. Of course, in the championship race, points don’t matter for the Championship 4 drivers, but all four title contenders, led by Truex in his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, showed strong early speed.

Truex stole the lead away from Blaney on Lap 51 and held onto it through the end of the stage.

Harvick, who like Blaney, was previously eliminated from the playoffs, finished second and was followed by the other three title contenders: Elliott, Hamlin and Larson, respectively, in the top five.

William Byron, Cole Custer, Blaney, Kurt Busch and Matt DiBenedetto rounded out the top-10 finishers.

Just seven laps into the race, Bubba Wallace’s season finale was done. The rear of the No. 23 23XI Racing Toyota slammed into the Turn 3 wall after Corey LaJoie in the No. 7 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet made contact with Wallace’s left rear side and sent him up the track.

Understandably frustrated, Wallace exited his toasted car, and as LaJoie passed him again on the track under caution, Wallace clapped his hands at the No. 7 driver.

Wallace — who won his first Cup race in October at Talladega — was evaluated and released from the infield care center, but he was clearly angry his offseason started a couple hours earlier than expected.

NASCAR Cup Series Championship Results

Sunday at the 1-mile Phoenix Raceway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (1) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 312 laps, 40 points.

2. (12) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 312, 35.

3. (6) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 312, 34.

4. (4) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 312, 42.

5. (2) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 312, 32.

6. (18) Aric Almirola, Ford, 312, 31.

7. (13) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 312, 33.

8. (9) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 312, 43.

9. (8) Christopher Bell, Toyota, 312, 28.

10. (11) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 312, 31.

11. (10) Joey Logano, Ford, 312, 28.

12. (15) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 312, 26.

13. (7) Cole Custer, Ford, 312, 28.

14. (16) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 312, 23.

15. (23) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 312, 22.

16. (5) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 312, 23.

17. (3) William Byron, Chevrolet, 312, 26.

18. (14) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 312, 19.

19. (20) Tyler Reddick, Chevrolet, 312, 18.

20. (31) Ryan Preece, Chevrolet, 312, 17.

21. (17) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 312, 16.

22. (27) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 312, 15.

23. (19) Ryan Newman, Ford, 312, 14.

24. (28) Michael McDowell, Ford, 312, 13.

25. (26) Chris Buescher, Ford, 311, 12.

26. (29) Justin Haley, Chevrolet, 310, 0.

27. (32) BJ McLeod, Ford, 309, 0.

28. (33) Cody Ware, Chevrolet, 306, 0.

29. (34) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 303, 0.

30. (37) Josh Bilicki, Ford, 303, 0.

31. (38) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 301, 0.

32. (24) Corey Lajoie, Chevrolet, 281, 5.

33. (36) David Starr, Ford, brakes, 273, 0.

34. (30) Anthony Alfredo, Ford, accident, 242, 3.

35. (22) Chase Briscoe, Ford, accident, 153, 2.

36. (21) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Chevrolet, accident, 140, 1.

37. (35) Quin Houff, Chevrolet, accident, 122, 1.

38. (39) Timmy Hill, Toyota, handling, 57, 0.

39. (25) Bubba Wallace, Toyota, accident, 5, 1.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kyle Larson wins NASCAR championship race for first Cup Series title



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