Larson caps off dominant year with championship

Larson caps off dominant year with championship

Kyle Larson is a Cup Series champion.

Larson won his 10th race of 2021 to beat Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott for the Cup Series title. Larson got the lead on the race’s final caution flag after a quick pit stop moved him from fourth to first among the title contenders. 

He restarted ahead of Hamlin and Truex with 24 laps to go in the 312-lap race and drove away on the restart. He then kept the rest of the field at bay for the final laps to get the title.

Larson got the lead on the pit stop because he had the best pit stall on pit road. The final pit stall on pit road allows a driver to accelerate hard out of his pit box and not worry about the pit road speed limit. Larson got to pick that pit stall because he qualified first for Sunday’s race. 

“There were so many points in this race that I didn’t think we were going to win,” Larson said to NBC after climbing from his car. “And then my pit crew, on that last stop, we would not be standing here. They’re the true winners of this race. The true champions. I’m just blessed to be a part of this group.”

Larson’s championship comes in his first season at Hendrick Motorsports. He joined Hendrick ahead of the 2021 season after he was fired from Chip Ganassi Racing four races into the 2020 season for saying a racial slur during a virtual race. Larson was fired after his car’s sponsors quickly disassociated themselves from the driver and he spent the rest of the season without a Cup Series ride.

Without a job in NASCAR, Larson won at dirt tracks all over the country in sprint cars. Given his prodigious talent — he’s long been considered one of the most talented drivers in the Cup Series and likely to win a title or three — it was certain that he would have a job sooner rather than later. And Hendrick hired him near the end of the 2020 season after seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson retired from the series. 

“I cannot believe it,” Larson said. “I didn’t even think I’d be racing a Cup car a year and a half ago and to win a championship is crazy.”

Larson has also showed contrition and growth for what he’s said. There’s been no indication that the efforts he’s made in the 18 months since he said the N-word are fake or simply for show. And when he returned to the Cup Series he was immediately the most dominant driver.

Larson won over 25% of the races in 2021 and led over 2,500 laps. No other driver led more than 1,600. While NASCAR’s winner-take-all championship race format doesn’t always reward the season’s best driver, Larson was by far the best driver in 2021 and his accomplishments on the track make him a worthy champion. 

Truex finished second and Hamlin finished third. Ryan Blaney passed Elliott — the 2020 champion — for fourth late in the race. Elliott was fifth.

Late caution saved Larson 

Larson was running fourth when a caution came out on lap 281 for a broken brake rotor from David Starr’s backmarker car.

Truex and Hamlin were running 1-2 at the time and the two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers appeared to have an edge over the Hendrick Motorsports drivers of Larson and Elliott.

“I don’t know, the clean air seemed to be a good bit of an advantage,” Truex said. “Whoever got out front was good for 20, 30, 40 laps, and then the long run cars would start coming around.”

Larson and Elliott combined to lead 197 of the 312 laps and were out front before a caution on lap 247 when Anthony Alfredo’s tire blew out and he slammed into the wall. Truex had entered pit road right before that crash — everyone had to make one more pit stop to make it to the end of the race — and inherited the lead because Elliott didn’t have a chance to lap him before the caution was called.

Hamlin restarted second after his team had a fast pit stop. Hamlin and Truex had cars that were much better on longer green flag runs. That didn’t work well for them at the end of the race since the final run to the finish was 24 laps.

Had Alfredo not hit the wall and the race not had another caution, it’s likely that Hamlin or Truex is the champion. Instead, Larson is the guy who gets to claim the title.

“But honestly, there’s just nothing else I could have done,” Hamlin said. “There’s nothing else. I drove as hard as I could every lap. I didn’t have the speed for the first 20 [laps of a green flag run]. It was evident in a lot of the restarts we had. It was actually overachieved in quite a few. But that was it.

“I have to live with the result because I can’t change it. Disappointed, absolutely, for sure. But I knew kind of going into today I was going to need the race to go a certain way. If it goes the way it did last year, it goes green out, we’re probably winning.

With Elliott winning a year ago and Truex getting a title in 2017, Hamlin continues to be the most accomplished driver in the Cup Series to not win a title. Hamlin is a surefire Hall of Famer — he’s won three Daytona 500s and has 46 career wins — but he’s still searching for a championship to cap his career.

Race results

1. Kyle Larson

2. Martin Truex Jr.

3. Denny Hamlin

4. Ryan Blaney

5. Chase Elliott

6. Aric Almirola

7. Kyle Busch

8. Kevin Harvick

9. Christopher Bell

10. Brad Keselowski

11. Joey Logano

12. Matt DiBenedetto

13. Cole Custer

14. Ross Chastain

15. Austin Dillon

16. Kurt Busch

17. William Byron

18. Alex Bowman

19. Tyler Reddick

20. Ryan Preece

21. Daniel Suarez

22. Erik Jones

23. Ryan Newman

24. Michael McDowell

25. Chris Buescher

26. Justin Haley

27. BJ McLeod

28. Cody Ware

29. Joey Gase

30. Josh Bilicki

31. Garrett Smithley

32. Corey LaJoie

33. David Starr

34. Anthony Alfredo

35. Chase Briscoe

36. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

37. Quin Houff

38. Timmy Hill

39. Bubba Wallace

Final playoff standings

1. Kyle Larson

2. Martin Truex Jr.

3. Denny Hamlin

4. Chase Elliott

5. Kevin Harvick

6. Brad Keselowski

7. Ryan Blaney

8. Joey Logano

9. Kyle Busch

10. William Byron

11. Kurt Busch

12. Christopher Bell

13. Tyler Reddick

14. Alex Bowman

15. Aric Almirola

16. Michael McDowell