Larson dodged late-race chaos to not only win at Texas but earn entry to the NASCAR Cup Series’ championship final.
Everything’s bigger in Texas…including the victories.
Kyle Larson dominated Sunday’s Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, leading 256 of 334 laps in the opening round of the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoffs’ Round of 8. Not only does Larson earn his series-best eighth victory of the season but he also becomes the first driver to clinch his spot in the Championship 4 that will run for the title at Phoenix on Nov. 7.
Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet led the final 218 laps of the event, one that swallowed up several other semifinalists over the final stages. Joey Logano (30th) and Martin Truex Jr. (25th) each failed to finish thanks to incidents that occurred over the final 35 laps. Late damage also prevented Denny Hamlin (11th) from keeping pace with Larson. Their final positions were partly aided by an early incident at lap 32 that involved a dozen drivers.
Hendrick teammate William Byron finished second behind Larson, beating out Christopher Bell. Fellow semifinalist Brad Keselowski finished fourth while Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.
The Fateful Eighth
Larson’s downright dominant effort at Texas locks him into the list of four contenders that will race for a championship at Phoenix. As the regular season champion and owner of a 40-plus point lead above the fifth-place cutoff as the Round of 8 commenced, Larson had a smooth road toward the Championship 4. He and his team nonetheless found it important to kick off the semifinal round on a strong note.
2020’s regular season champion, Kevin Harvick, appeared to be a shoo-in for the Phoenix quartet after entering the Round of 8 with nine wins. But consecutive finishes outside the top 15 forced him into a desperate situation at the penultimate race at Martinsville, one that relegated the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford to the status of an also-ran. Harvick’s weighed heavily on Larson’s mind but he can now spend the next two races in relatively solace.
“We had a good points lead or whatever from the cutoff going into it, but still…Harvick had his issues last year and didn’t make the Final Four. That will always be on my mind,” Larson said after the race. “I was positioned well to where if I finished in the top four or five, I was still going to probably gain a lot, I would think, on the cut line…(but) I’m not going to plan on racing any differently these next two weeks. I still want to win stages, win some races and keep this momentum going into Phoenix.”
Larson was able to withstand five restarts over the final 34 laps despite some competitors, like Bell and Ryan Blaney (6th), working with fresher tires. His work on the restarts worked alongside his team’s fast pit stops, which helped maintain his permanent hold on the lead of an afternoon where green-flag stops were mostly eliminated.
Larson’s win was the 14th of his career, breaking a tie with fellow Hendrick Motorsports legends Tim Richmond and Chase Elliott (the latter being the defending Cup Series champion). He is also closing in on a NASCAR record held by HMS’ own Jeff Gordon: having led 2,267 laps this season, Larson is only 54 away from breaking Gordon’s record for most at the front during a 36-race season, setting such a record during his final championship trek in 2001.
“That would be really, really cool,” Larson said of potentially breaking Gordon’s mark. “I led a lot more laps today than I thought I would, so yeah, it’s definitely a goal of mine. I think somewhere in the back of my mind like it’s a goal. It’s not like something I’m upset about if I don’t lead any laps in a race or anything, but once I’m leading I want to stay in the lead to help catch that record.”
The win at Texas was Larson’s first in a points-event in the Lone Star State, though he previously took home the first-ever All-Star Race hosted by the 1.5-mile oval in June.
Though the race was relatively calm following the aforementioned incident on lap 31 (which ended the days of Bubba Wallace, Ryan Newman, Alex Bowman, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., among others), several late incidents reshaped the playoff picture…
- Joey Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford blew its engine at lap 298, pushing him back to 30th. Logano failed to earn any stages points after the first two segments and will likely need to win one of the next two races to reappear in the championship-chasing group at Phoenix as he sits 43 points away from a transfer.
- Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota lost a tire with 21 to go and went for a spin. Though he avoided major damage, Hamlin was involved in a seperate, more costly incident involving old enemy Chase Briscoe, bringing back memories of their antagonistic encounter at the Indianapolis road course in August. Hamlin would fight back to finish ninth and owns a nine-point lead above the cut-off.
- Another Gibbs Toyota, that of Martin Truex Jr., was involved in a Turn 3 incident with Daniel Suarez, as contact with the latter’s No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet put it into the wall. Truex’s No. 19 finished 25th and he’s now 22 points away from Phoenix.
Power of Penske
In addition to Byron’s No. 24 Hendrick machine (which was eliminated earlier this postseason), the top challenger to Larson’s reign was the Team Penske tandem of Keselowski and Blaney. The two ran in the top five most of the day and Blaney’s sixth-place finish allowed him to be labeled to the first driver currently in the final four on points, sitting 17 ahead of Elliott in fifth.
Keselowski felt that he and Blaney could’ve given the Hendrick pair a run for their money had they gotten some longer runs in the race’s dying stages.
“We had the car balanced really well with the Discount Tire Ford on the long runs,” the driver of the No. 2 said. “The last few times we have been here you get 40 or 50 or 100 lap runs at the end but today, we didn’t run more than two laps at a time for the last 45 or 50 laps. That’s just not what we needed. We needed the long runs to be able to keep them honest. We had long-run speed, but the 5 and 24 were just blistering fast on the restart and drove away from me. I just wanted some laps to let their stuff wear down.”
The Round of 8 carries on with its middle portion on Sunday afternoon at Kansas Speedway’s Hollywood Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN). It perhaps couldn’t be better timing for Logano, who clinched his spot in last year’s Phoenix group with a win in last year’s fall event in Kansas City. Logano is tied with Gordon, Hamlin, Harvick, and Jimmie Johnson for the most wins at the track with three, previously winning in 2014 and 2015. This will be the latter of two races at Kansas, the first won by Kyle Busch back in May.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags