Larson clinches championship spot with a win at Texas

The 2021 comeback, dream season for Kyle Larson became even brighter as the California kid dominated and fended off the field through four restarts under the final 25 laps to win the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, October 17.

By winning the Playoff’s Round of 8 opener at the Lone Star state for his eighth victory of the season, Larson punched his ticket to the Championship 4 Round at Phoenix Raceway scheduled in early November as he will contend for his first NASCAR Cup Series championship.

The starting lineup was based on a performance metric formula, weighing the driver’s and owner’s results from a previous Cup event, the owner points position and the fastest lap recorded from a previous Cup race. With that, Kyle Larson, winner of last weekend’s Playoff event at the Charlotte Roval, started on pole position and was joined on the front row with Denny Hamlin.

Prior to the event, Playoff contender Chase Elliott started at the rear of the field due to his No. 9 Kelley Blue Book Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE failing pre-race inspection twice. Other competitors who started at the rear of the field due to two inspection failures included Corey LaJoie, rookie Chase Briscoe, Garrett Smithley and David Starr. Prior to the start, Alex Bowman, who was recently eliminated from the Playoffs, and Justin Haley also dropped to the rear of the field due to unapproved adjustments to their respective machines.

When the green flag waved and the race commenced, Larson received a push from Kyle Busch to jump to an early advantage for a full lap. With Larson leading the first lap, he had the green No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota Camry piloted by Kyle Busch close in his rearview mirrors while the No. 22 AAA Insurance Ford Mustang driven by Joey Logano started to close in. Denny Hamlin maintained fourth while Martin Truex Jr. was challenged by Tyler Reddick and others for more.

By the fifth lap, Larson was out in front by nearly half a second over Kyle Busch. While Hamlin started to challenge Logano for third, Ryan Blaney moved up to fifth followed by teammate Brad Keselowski.

Through the first 10 laps of the event, Larson stabilized his advantage to nearly half a second over Kyle Busch while Logano, Blaney and Hamlin were in the top five. William Byron, following his elimination from the Playoffs, was up in sixth followed by Keselowski, Truex, Tyler Reddick and Chris Buescher. Meanwhile, Chase Elliott was up in 18th.

Ten laps later, Larson extended his advantage to more than two seconds over Logano, who overtook Kyle Busch earlier. Blaney, meanwhile, started to close in on Logano and Busch for more while Byron was up in fifth ahead of Hamlin’s No. 11 Craftsman Toyota Camry.

When the competition caution flew on Lap 25, Larson was leading by more than three seconds over Logano, who had teammate Blaney starting to challenge him for the runner-up spot. Behind, Byron moved his No. 24 AXALTA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE ahead of Kyle Busch. While seven Playoff contenders were in the top 10, Elliott, the eighth and final title contender, was up in 13th in between Buescher and Bubba Wallace.

Under the competition caution, the leaders pitted and Byron, who opted for a two-tire pit stop, leapfrogged from fourth to the lead followed by Truex, Kyle Busch, Reddick, Christopher Bell and Logano, who made light contact with Justin Haley’s Spire Motorsports car while exiting his pit stall. Following the pit stops, however, Kyle Busch was sent to the rear of the field for speeding on pit road.

When the race restarted on Lap 30, Byron maintained the lead ahead of Truex and Reddick as the field fanned out to multiple lanes entering the first two turns. Just then, the caution returned for a 10-car wreck that started when Bubba Wallace, who was in between Kurt Busch and Keselowski, got loose underneath Busch, clipped Michael McDowell and was hit by Ross Chastain while Alex Bowman got turned after being hit by Cole Custer, Aric Almirola and Ryan Newman. Also involved were Ricky Stenhouse Jr., teammate Ryan Preece, Haley, Cody Ware and Joey Gase as many were taken out of contention. 

In the midst of the carnage, Kyle Busch, who sustained minimal rear-end damage but managed to dodge most of the carnage, pitted for fresh tires along with Keselowski and Blaney.

Following an extensive cleanup, the race restarted on Lap 39. At the start, Truex engaged in a heated side-by-side battle with Byron as the field again fanned out while jostling for positions. Truex managed to lead the following lap by a nose before Byron fought back on the inside lane and cleared Truex entering the backstretch. Behind was Matt DiBenedetto along with Logano and Bell while Hamlin was in sixth. Meanwhile, Elliott was left in a battle with Austin Dillon and Larson for eighth.

On Lap 43, Reddick made the slightest of air contact with Truex entering Turn 3, which wiggled Truex’s car up the track and dropped him from second to fifth as Reddick, DiBenedetto and Logano took advantage of Truex’s misfortune.

Through the first 50 laps of the event, Byron was leading by six-tenths of a second over Reddick while third-place DiBenedetto trailed by more than two seconds. Teammates Hamlin and Truex were in the top five ahead of Elliott. Bell, Larson, Blaney and Logano were in the top 10 followed by Austin Dillon, Erik Jones, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Daniel Suarez. Kyle Busch, meanwhile, was in 16th ahead of Keselowski, Chris Buescher, Chase Briscoe and Corey LaJoie.

Ten laps later, Byron continued to lead by six-tenths of a second over Reddick while third-place Hamlin trailed by more than four seconds. Behind, teammates Larson and Elliott moved in the top five ahead of Blaney, DiBenedetto, Bell, Truex and Erik Jones. Kyle Busch was in 11th, Logano was back in 12th and Keselowski was mired in 17th.

Another 10 laps later, Byron stretched his advantage to more than a second over Reddick. Meanwhile, Larson flew his way to third place ahead of Hamlin, Elliott and Blaney while Kyle Busch worked his way up to seventh. Truex, however, slipped back to 10th in between DiBenedetto and Kurt Busch while Logano and Keselowski were in 13th and 17th.

On Lap 82, Larson returned to the lead after gaining a huge momentum entering the backstretch and overtaking teammate Byron on four fresh tires compared to no fresh tires to Byron.

Three laps later, Larson slowly started to extend his advantage to nearly seven-tenths of a second over teammate Byron while Reddick, Hamlin and Elliott remained in the top five. 

Another five laps later, Larson’s advantage grew to more than a second over teammate Byron.

On Lap 95, Larson pitted under green along with Byron, Reddick, DiBenedetto, Logano and others. Soon after, names like Elliott, Harvick and Hamlin, who led two laps, pitted. In the midst of the pit stops, Kyle Busch, racing with race engineer Seth Chavka serving as an interim crew chief, was leading with plans on winning the stage after pitting under the previous caution for the multi-car wreck.

At the Lap 100 mark, Kyle Busch was leading by three-tenths of a second over teammate Bell while Blaney, Kurt Busch and Buescher were in the top five. By then, Truex pitted under green. Soon after, Bell surrendered the runner-up spot to pit.

When the first stage concluded on Lap 105, Kyle Busch claimed his seventh stage victory of the season. Blaney settled in second ahead of Larson, Kurt Busch, Byron, Briscoe, Hamlin, Elliott, Reddick and Keselowski. By then, 12 competitors were scored on the lead lap while names like Truex and Logano were behind a lap.

Under the stage break, the lead lap competitors pitted as Kyle Busch retained the lead ahead of Larson, Kurt Busch, Truex, Blaney and Byron.

The second stage started on Lap 112. At the start, Kyle Busch received a push from Byron to clear Larson entering the first turn and maintain the lead. 

The following lap, Briscoe nearly made contact with Blaney entering Turn 3, but both competitors kept their cars straight as Briscoe moved up to sixth behind teammate Harvick. Meanwhile, Larson challenged Kyle Busch for the lead while Byron and Elliott were in third and fourth.

After battling Busch side-by-side for a full lap, Larson reassumed the lead approaching Lap 117 ahead of Kyle Busch while Harvick challenged Byron for third ahead of Reddick, Elliott and Briscoe. 

By Lap 120, Larson was out in front by nearly half a second over teammate Byron while Kyle Busch settled in third ahead of Reddick, Harvick and Elliott. Logano made his way up to seventh ahead of teammate Keselowski, Briscoe and Blaney while Hamlin and Truex were in 11th and 12th.

Through the first 150 laps of the event, Larson, racing in his No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, stabilized his advantage to nearly three seconds over teammate Byron while Kyle Busch, Reddick and Harvick were in the top five. Blaney and Elliott were in sixth and seventh followed by Keselowski, Keselowski and Hamlin while Truex was in 11th. 

Nearly five laps later, green flag pit stops occurred as Elliott pitted his No. 9 Kelley Blue Book Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. Soon after, Austin Dillon pitted along with Logano, Reddick, Erik Jones, DiBenedetto.

Just three laps shy of the halfway mark scheduled on Lap 167, the fourth caution of the event flew due to debris reported on the backstretch. 

Under caution, the leaders pitted and Larson retained the lead upon exiting his pit stall followed by Kyle Busch, Byron, Keselowski, Harvick and Blaney.

When the race restarted on Lap 170, Larson received a push from teammate Byron to maintain the lead ahead of Kyle Busch and clear the field. While Byron and Kyle Busch battled for second, Penske teammates Blaney and Keselowski dueled for fourth and more while Harvick was in sixth.

By Lap 180, Larson was leading by three-tenths of a second over teammate Byron while Blaney, Keselowski and Harvick were in the top five. While Kurt Busch was up in sixth, brother Kyle was back in seventh ahead of Hamlin, Briscoe and Truex.

At the Lap 200 mark, Larson continued to lead by six-tenths of a second over teammate Byron while Blaney, Harvick and Keselowski remained in the top five. Kurt Busch, Briscoe, Hamlin and Reddick were running sixth through ninth while Kyle Busch was mired back in 10th ahead of Truex and Logano.

When the second stage concluded on Lap 210, Larson, who encountered brief lapped traffic, fended off a hard-charging, teammate Byron and notched his 16th stage victory of the season. Blaney fended off Harvick to finish behind the two Hendrick Motorsports teammates while Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Briscoe, Reddick and Kyle Busch were scored in the top 10. The Playoff contenders finishing outside of the top-10 stage points spots were Truex (11th), Logano, (12th) and Elliott (15th).  

Under the stage break, the leaders pitted and Larson retained the lead following his service and after beating teammate Byron back to the pit exit line. Keselowski followed suit along with Blaney, Kurt Busch and Harvick. Following the pit stops, Daniel Suarez was penalized for speeding on pit road.

With 118 laps remaining, the final stage commenced. At the start, Larson was being pushed by Blaney on the inside lane while Byron was being pushed by Keselowski on the outside lane. Entering the backstretch, however, Larson persevered for the lead while Blaney challenged Byron for second. 

The following lap, Kurt Busch, who was in sixth, dropped off the pace through the backstretch and made his way to pit road under green for two fresh left-side tires.

Back at the front, Larson was leading by a narrow margin over teammate Byron while Harvick was in third along with Keselowski, Blaney, Hamlin, Logano, Kyle Busch, Briscoe and Reddick. 

With 110 laps remaining, Larson slowly started to pull away with the lead while Harvick and Byron battled for second ahead of Keselowski and Blaney.

Down to the final 100 laps of the event, Larson stretched his advantage to more than a second over teammate Byron while Keselowski, Blaney and Harvick were in the top five. Reddick was up in sixth followed by Briscoe, Hamlin, Logano and Kyle Busch while Elliott and Truex were in 11th and 12th.

With 75 laps remaining, teammates Larson and Byron remained in first and second despite both battling vibration issues to their respective Chevrolets. Keselowski was in third, trailing by three seconds, while Blaney and Reddick remained in the top five. By then, Kyle Busch was outside of the top 10 in 11th while Elliott occupied 10th place. Not long after, Bell pitted under green. 

Fifteen laps later, the caution flew when Briscoe, who was having a strong run in the top 10 and was battling Hamlin earlier before making contact with Hamlin and touching the Turn 4 outside wall, cut a right-rear tire and shredded debris through the backstretch. 

Under caution, the leaders pitted and Larson retained the lead followed by Byron, Keselowski, Reddick, Hamlin and Blaney.

With 54 laps remaining, the race restarted under green. At the start, Larson received a push from Keselowski to clear teammate Byron and remain as the leader ahead of the field. 

Four laps later, the battle for the lead started to ignite as Byron challenged Larson for the lead. Despite keeping his leader and teammate within his sights, Byron still could not gain a run to seal the deal over Larson.

Another 10 laps later, Larson stabilized his advantage to three-tenths of a second over teammate Byron and six-tenths of a second over Keselowski while Reddick trailed by less than a second. Blaney was in fifth ahead of Hamlin, who had Daniel Suarez and Elliott closing in. Harvick and Logano were in the top 10 just ahead of Kyle Busch and Truex. 

With 36 laps remaining, the seventh caution of the event flew when the motor on Logano’s No. 22 AAA Ford Mustang blew up through the backstretch, which forced the 2018 Cup champion to end his race in the garage and place an early blow to start the Round of 8.

Under caution, some led by Elliott pitted while the rest led by Larson remained on the track.

Down to the final 30 laps of the event, the race restarted under green as Larson and Byron dueled for the lead followed by Reddick and Keselowski. Just then, the caution returned as Kyle Busch got Buescher sideways while rookie Anthony Alfredo, who made contact with teammate Michael McDowell, spun and backed his car into the outside wall in Turn 1. As Alfredo’s car slid down the track, fire then erupted beneath Alfredo’s car and the Turn 1 surface, though Alfredo was able to safely exit out of his car. The incident was enough for the event to be red-flagged for 11 minutes.

When the red flag was lifted and the race restarted with 25 laps remaining, Larson received a push from Reddick to remain as the leader while Reddick challenged Byron for second. Behind, Hamlin made his way into fourth place ahead of Blaney while Keselowski slipped to sixth ahead of Harvick. 

The following lap, a three-wide action occurred between Hamlin, Blaney and Harvick as they battled for fourth for a full lap in front of Truex and Kyle Busch. Then, Blaney made contact with Hamlin entering the frontstretch, which resulted in a tire rub and smoke coming out of Hamlin’s No. 11 Craftsman Toyota. Despite the contact, Hamlin, for the moment, continued in seventh behind Keselowski, Harvick and Blaney.

Back at the front, Larson continued to lead ahead Reddick, who overtook Byron for second as Keselowski remained in the hunt.

Then nearing the final 20 laps of the event, the caution returned when Hamlin spun through the backstretch after cutting the left-rear tire, which came from the contact with Blaney. Despite having minimum damage to his car, Hamlin, who also had a flat right-front tire, pitted and continued.

Down to the final 16 laps of the event, the race restarted under green. At the start, Byron shoved teammate Larson to the lead before trying to fend off Reddick and Harvick for second. 

Shortly after, the 10th caution of the event flew when Truex, who was bumped by Suarez, made hard contact into the Turn 3 outside wall before limping his No. 19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota Camry to his pit stall with significant right-side damage. The damage was enough to knock Truex out of contention in the closing stages of the event. 

With nine laps remaining, the race restarted as teammates Larson and Byron retained the front row. At the start, Larson received another strong shove on the inside lane from Reddick to retain the lead. While Byron retained second, Reddick also fended off Keselowski, Blaney, Bell and Harvick to settle in third while challenging Byron for more. 

With seven laps remaining, Reddick slipped beneath Byron in Turn 3 while trying to take second, which resulted with Reddick slipping out of the top five as Larson ran away with the lead.

Just then, the 11th caution flew when Briscoe and Buescher made contact entering the backstretch, which resulted with Buescher spinning and getting hit by Hamlin before making hard contact with the inside wall and ending his race with a wrecked race car.

With the race set to a two-lap shootout, the green flag waved as teammates Larson and Byron occupied the front row once again. At the start, Larson was able to clear Byron entering the first two turns to keep the lead as the field battled and fanned out behind.

When the white flag waved and the final lap started, Larson continued to lead while Keselowski challenged Byron for second. With the side-by-side battles occurring behind him, Larson streaked away from the field and came back around to claim his eighth checkered flag of the 2021 season.  

By claiming his 14th NASCAR Cup Series career win and sweeping both Texas Motor Speedway Cup events of this season (he won the All-Star Race at Texas in June), Larson will make his first appearance in the Championship 4 Round as a title contender as he looks to deliver a second consecutive title for Hendrick Motorsports.

“This is unreal,” Larson said on NBC. “I knew we’d have a good shot to win today and our car was amazing. That’s probably the best 550 [mph] package, intermediate car we’ve had all year. Thanks to everybody on this No. 5 team, HendrickCars.com, [owner] Rick Hendrick. This is so cool. We get to go race for a championship in a few weeks. This is crazy. I just got good pushes from behind me, really. I tried to stay patient on the throttle, to keep them to my back bumper and thankfully, I was able to just barely clear them every time into [Turn] 1 and not have to fight them off of [Turn] 2. Thanks to William [Byron], Tyler [Reddick], Brad Keselowski, anybody who was ever behind me, especially Brad there that last restart. Just awesome to win and hope we can get some more wins throughout the rest of the year.”

“I don’t think we’re gonna lose focus on Kansas [Speedway] or Martinsville [Speedway], but I definitely think we can shift a little bit more to Phoenix [Raceway] car,” Larson added. “Really look forward to that. I love the West Coast. I love Phoenix. We’ve always been fast there. I think we should have a good shot. Our team’s been so strong all year long and might as well close it out now.”

Byron received a push from Bell through the frontstretch to claim the runner-up spot, which moved Bell up to third and dropped Keselowski to fourth while Harvick finished in the top five. 

“It’s all about the push,” Byron said. “I think here at Texas, the shortest lane kind of wins out because of the way the track kind of separates into Turn 1. The AXALTA Chevy was fast all day. We just never quite got control. I think [Larson] was definitely better than us that first stage and then, I was right there with him the rest of the time and it was just clean air, basically. Congrats to [Larson]. Kyle really deserves it. They’ve been awesome all year, flawless on pit road, pit calls and everything. Our team’s right there and I think we’re building something really good for years to come.”

“The last few times we’ve been here, you get 40-, 50-, 100-lap runs in the end and jeez, we didn’t run more than two laps at the time for the last 45, 50 laps,” Keselowski said. “That’s not what we needed. We needed the long runs to be able to keep them honest. We had the long-run speed. Those guys were just blistering fast, [Larson] and [Byron]. Every restart, they just drove away from me. It’s kind of like, ‘Come on, give me some laps and let their stuff wear down!’ Just wasn’t the way it played out. We gained a point, but we moved up from eighth to sixth [in the standings], so that’s a nice little win for us. If you keep running like that, scoring high 30s, low 40s in points, we’ll transfer in.”

Finishing in the top 10 were Blaney, Elliott, Kyle Busch, Reddick and Suarez. Hamlin, meanwhile, limped across the finish line in 11th place and with damage to the front nose of his car following his involvement in the previous caution.

“It just gets wild and crazy,” Blaney said. “There’s not a ton of room here to kind of go on restarts and then, just trying to help each lane kind of move forward. You hope the lane you pick moves forward and I thought we could run third or fourth. I thought the top two, [Larson] and [Byron], were pretty spectacular. I thought we could run third or fourth and just lost a couple of spots here and there on each restart. Gained one, lose one and then, we ended up sixth. Proud of the Dex Imaging Ford Mustang team today. Good stage points. We got a good finish out of it. Go on to Kansas and keep on at it…Just gotta keep doing what you’re doing. I don’t think you can ever get comfortable unless you’re [Larson] right now for the next two races. You just have to keep racing like you have been. We did a good job on pit road and didn’t make any mistakes today. Had a fast enough car to run up at the front. You hope to bring that every single week. We’ll keep on focusing on one race at a time.”

“I thought by the end, we were decent,” Elliott said. “Just by that point, obviously, too late…Congrats to Kyle. Hopefully, we can join those guys in Phoenix. I’m looking forward to these next two weeks. I think we can run good at the next couple [races]. We all got to be super close in points. I feel like we just go do our jobs these next two weeks and control what’s in our hands. and we’ll be alright. “

“We probably missed four or five points there at the end of the day, but we missed four or five points at the stage as well, too” Kyle Busch said. “That’s about all we missed out on. We just didn’t have it. Certainly, [Larson] and [Byron] were the class of the field again. We were just slow. I found some laps where I could run wide open and I was able to just barely, barely, barely make the same time as them. Anytime I had to get out of the gas, they would just drive away. Got to go back to the drawing board for next week. Try to figure out some better stuff for Kansas. We’ll go get’em next week.”

“We just didn’t have quite a fast-enough car,” Hamlin said. “I thought we were fifth at best, honestly. Two wrecks at the end. [Blaney] just got bounced up into us there. We got our tire cut, hit the wall and then, [Buescher] and [Briscoe] got into it there and came across the nose. The fact that there was that much attrition was a good thing for us because we were able to rally on that green-white-checkered to get to 11th…I’m pretty optimistic about next week at Kansas. We need some tools to fix this car because it is destroyed.”

There were eight lead changes for five different leaders. The race featured 11 cautions for 55 laps. Only 15 of 39 starters finished on the lead lap.

Results.

1. Kyle Larson, 256 laps led, Stage 2 winner

2. William Byron, 55 laps led

3. Christopher Bell

4. Brad Keselowski

5. Kevin Harvick

6. Ryan Blaney

7. Chase Elliott

8. Kyle Busch, 20 laps led, Stage 1 winner

9. Tyler Reddick

10. Daniel Suarez

11. Denny Hamlin, two laps led

12. Erik Jones

13. Matt DiBenedetto

14. Austin Dillon

15. Chase Briscoe

16. Kurt Busch, two laps down

17. Michael McDowell, two laps down

18. Aric Almirola, three laps down

19. Cole Custer, four laps down

20. Corey LaJoie, five laps down

21. Chris Buescher – OUT, Accident

22. BJ McLeod, 10 laps down

23. David Starr, 11 laps down

24. Garrett Smithley, 13 laps down

25. Martin Truex Jr. – OUT, Accident, one lap led

26. Josh Bilicki, 15 laps down

27. Timmy Hill, 17 laps down

28. Ross Chastain, 23 laps down

29. Anthony Alfredo – OUT, Accident

30. Joey Logano – OUT, Engine

31. Quin Houff – OUT, Suspension

32. Bubba Wallace – OUT, Accident

33. Alex Bowman – OUT, Accident

34. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – OUT, Accident

35. Ryan Newman – OUT, Accident

36. Ryan Preece – OUT, Accident

37. Justin Haley – OUT, Accident

38. Cody Ware – OUT, Accident

39. Joey Gase – OUT, Accident

Bold indicates Playoff contenders.

Playoff standings.

1. Kyle Larson – Advanced

2. Ryan Blaney, +17

3. Denny Hamlin, +9

4. Kyle Busch, +8

5. Chase Elliott, -8

6. Brad Keselowski, -15

7. Martin Truex Jr., -22

8. Joey Logano, -43

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs will continue next weekend at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, October 24, which will occur at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN. 



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

Andrew Kim
An avid motorsports enthusiast from California with aspirations of working in any form of communications, PR or digital/social media in motorsports.

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