With his second streak of three consecutive wins, Kyle Larson reached a NASCAR Cup Series mark last obtained by Dale Earnhardt.
Automatic advancement to the NASCAR Cup Series’ championship race at Phoenix was, once again, no excuse for Kyle Larson to take the weekend off.
Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet earned its ninth victory of the 2021 season by leading 130 of the Hollywood Casino 400’s 267 laps at Kansas Speedway. The team has now won three races in a row with two events left on the schedule. Larson had previously punched his championship ticket with a win at Texas last weekend. The win before that at Charlotte’s road course was likewise earned with nothing to gain, as Larson was already in the ongoing Round of 8 based on points.
The win at Kansas, Larson’s first in 14 starts, proved historic in more ways than one. Larson has now led 69,032 laps this season, setting the all-time Cup Series record for a 36-race season (passing fellow HMS legend Jeff Gordon’s tally during his championship trek in 2001). Larson’s second “three-peat” of 2021 also makes him the first driver since Dale Earnhardt in 1987 to win three straight races on two occasions in the same season. The previous trio came at Charlotte, Sonoma, and Nashville earlier in the spring.
A Hendrick Motorsports vehicle also visited victory lane on an emotional weekend: Sunday marked the 17th anniversary since a plane owned by the team crashed en route to an event at Martinsville Speedway. All 10 passengers on board were killed, including team owner Rick Hendrick’s 24-year-old son Ricky. Larson’s primary paint scheme this season, sponsored by HendrickCars.com, has strongly resembled the car the younger Hendrick drove during his day on the NASCAR Busch (now Xfinity) Series circuit. Ricky’s only NASCAR national series victory came in a Truck Series race at Kansas in July 2001.
The defending Cup Series champion and Larson’s HMS teammate, Chase Elliott, finished second. Elliott is currently the first driver admitted to the final four on points, holding a 34-point advantage on fifth-place Ryan Blaney. Non-playoff drivers Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch finished third and fourth while semifinalist Denny Hamlin (32 points ahead of fifth) rounded out the top five.
Nine to 5
A lack of stakes was no obstacle for the No. 5 team, which is now one win away from earning the first 10-win Cup season since yet another HMS legend, Jimmie Johnson, did so in 2007. Larson had a decent advantage through starting on the pole and wound up staying up front for most of the afternoon.
Larson knows that his dominant season will be instantly forgotten if he doesn’t hoist the championship trophy in Phoenix. He’s hoping that a strong showing at Kansas and one more short track visit to Martinsville next week will generate the momentum necessary to finish things off, even if Phoenix is, in his own words, “a different style track than we’ve been winning on”. The driver of the No. 5 has also set a late, lofty goal in that he hopes his return to the circuit could go down as one of the five greatest seasons in the history of the sport.
“It’s like hard for me to think if people will really remember if you don’t win the championship now at this point,” Larson said after the race. “You can read into it adding pressure that I want to win the championship, even more, to cap off what’s been a great season…So that’s my goal, and I hope we can finish it off with being mentioned in one of the top five greatest seasons ever.”
Despite that lofty goal, Larson refused to label himself the championship favorite.
“I think looking at the drivers in the Round of 8, you can make a strong case for every single one of us, why we could win the championship at Phoenix. So I don’t know,” Larson said when queried about the coming finale. “I don’t think you can pick a favorite. I think maybe, yes, you can look at me as being the favorite because of the momentum and stuff that we’re on and all that. But I can make a case for any one of the other seven drivers, why they could beat me and beat any of us. Anybody can win I think in the Final 8 right now.”
The biggest threat to Larson’s dominance was his own teammates: Hendrick Chevrolets led 229 of 267 laps on Sunday, with Elliott pacing 42. Though his playoff journey ended after the Round of 12, William Byron led 57 and won the second 81-lap stage. Byron’s quest for an upset victory was derailed by a pit road miscue: as the leaders made one last stop during a caution brought out by Ryan Newman’s spin with 48 to go, Byron won the race off pit road but was forced to revisit due to loose lug nuts. The No. 24 Chevrolet eventually recovered to finish sixth.
With Byron out of contention, Elliott took the lead from Kurt Busch on lap 223’s restart but Larson reassumed to top spot six circuits later. The defending champ’s No. 9 closed in on Larson as the laps dwindled, but some contact with the wall forced him to settle for the runner-up spot.
Elliott is still in a prime position to compete in the Championship 4 through his 34-point lead, though he should know better than anyone about the potential for chaos at Martinsville: faced with a win-or-go-home situation in last year’s event, Elliott came from the rear of the field to win, overcoming an overturned pit road penalty en route.
Halloween gets scarier for postseason cusp
Several playoff drivers had early issues with their tires, a situation that manufacturer Goodyear attributed to windy conditions at Kansas. Larson admitted that strengthened winds that picked up after a 15-minute red flag for weather after lap 12 “caught (him) off guard”.
“I went off turn 2 and somebody shoved my car and pushed me a half a group up,” Larson recalled. “I made a quick mental note of that and how the balance was into 3 and kind of adjusted…Kansas, for whatever reason, is typically like the only track I feel like that affects the balance of the race car with the wind. A lot of times it will be a tailwind off of 2 into 3 and you’ll be really loose into 3. But the crosswind today was odd.”
While Larson obviously recovered, several other drivers weren’t as lucky: Goodyear noted that the playoff cars of Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. were affected. Keselowski (17th) and Truex made contact at lap 53 and were forced to repair damage while Kyle Busch (28th) hit the wall and split his right rear quarter panel 80 laps later.
Blaney, who entered Kansas as the top driver in via points, had made his way back into the top ten by the final stages but another incident, this one involving Austin Dillon, put him in the wall with 43 to go. The damage was too great to continue and Blaney finished 37th.
“We got run into from two lanes below me. I have no idea,” Blaney, driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, said of the Dillon incident. “Obviously, it hurts. Finishing 37th is not prime. We didn’t have a great day but we did a good job of fighting back and getting back into the top-10 but then just got wiped out when we had plenty of room. That sucks. It is very unfortunate.”
As it stands, Busch currently holds the final championship advancement slot, with Blaney sitting a single point behind. Truex, who rallied to finish seventh, is three points back while Keselowski is six. The last playoff driver, Joey Logano, is 26 points back and likely faces a win-or-bust situation at Martinsville.
The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday for the Xfinity 500, the penultimate event of the 2021 season, at Martinsville (2 p.m. ET, NBC). Elliott worked his way into the Championship 4 with a daring win in last year’s fall event while Truex won at the short track’s most recent visit in April.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags