Kyle Larson wins NASCAR Cup Series championship at Phoenix Raceway
AVONDALE, Ariz. — Drivers in all motorsports are crucial. However, on Sunday afternoon in the Arizona desert, it was the pit crew that put the driver, Kyle Larson, in the best possible position to win.
Larson took command of the final 28 laps at Phoenix Raceway to win the race and the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Larson’s title-winning victory would not have happened, though, without a bit of luck.
Both Joe Gibbs Racing contenders, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin, had control of the race in the final stage. Larson and teammate Chase Elliott were seconds behind and in need of a restart to get back in the title picture.
With 31 laps to go, debris on turn three gave the Hendrick Motorsports teammates exactly what they were looking for: a caution.
Everything rested on all four title contenders’ pit crews to put their drivers in the best possible position.
With everything on the line, Larson’s pit crew came up clutch with a blazing fast pit stop. Combine that with the number one pit stall, and it equaled the number one position. It turned Larson from last among the four championship contenders to first.
Crew chief Cliff Daniels said the preferred pit stall played a part in the final stop, but it can only get his team so far without the efforts of his pit crew.
“Ninety percent of the equation was the guys having an amazing stop. Ten percent of the equation was stall one,” Daniels said.
A fantastic jump off the ensuing restart gave Larson all the room he needed to drive away to victory.
Sunday’s win capped off a career season worthy of a championship. Larson won 10 races in 2021 while leading 2,582 laps, the most in the Cup Series since Jeff Gordon in 1995.
Larson’s 2021 success is not limited to the Cup Series. In January, he took to the dirt and won the Chili Bowl Nationals. In August, he took the wheel of a sprint car and won the Knoxville Nationals. Both of those races are considered the biggest races for those cars.
His incredible 2021 season adds on to a 2020 dirt track season filled with 46 victories.
Larson said the big differentiator that makes 2021 special are the “big wins.”
“I was able to win a marquee event in each of the cars that I race,” Larson said. “I don’t think that I’ll be able to top this year, but I hope I can someday.”
Until the late caution and eventual restart, Truex Jr. held the lead in a long run. His car was one of the best in the field in longer runs. However, he lost track position and his chance at his second Cup Series title.
“We didn’t have the short run speed all day,” Truex Jr. said. “With 20 [laps] to go, it going to be hard to pass anybody out front with clean air.”
Hamlin never got going as well as he would have liked. Despite running well with the rest of his championship contenders, he failed to lead a lap.
Despite Sunday’s performance, he said that there is not a single regret about how the season’s final race played out.
“There’s just nothing else I could’ve done,” Hamlin said.
Larson’s teammate, Elliott, had multiple runs where his car was the dominant one. He led 94 laps, second only to Larson.
Despite not getting the job done for a repeat championship, Elliott put faith in his team and build off of a solid 2021 season that saw him win two races and finish in the top five 14 times.
“We’re a mentally strong group to go and compete for the win,” Elliott said. “That’s all you can ask for.”
While the competitors are left to hang their hats on performances that fell just short, Larson can revel in a racing dream come true.
“I don’t know if there’s another race that can top this win here today,” Larson said. “Winning a Cup Series race in Phoenix for a championship, it doesn’t get any bigger.”