FORT WORTH, TX — Kyle Larson was once again in a zip code all on his own during Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series semifinal round opener. The Hendrick Motorsports driver led a race-high 256 of 334 laps in the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 en route to his 14th career victory in NASCAR’s premiere series including eight this season alone.
Sunday was his fourth career playoff triumph with three of which coming over the last seven weeks. He endured six late race restarts but never flinched in either as he led the final 218 laps of the race and now stamps his name into the Championship 4 as a result.
The last two Hendrick drivers to land in the final four?
Jimmie Johnson (2016) and Chase Elliott (2020). Both took home the hardware those seasons.
The race saw only five yellows in the first 273 laps with two of them being for stage breaks and another for the Lap 25 competition caution. But, over the final 60 laps turned on the 1.5-mile track, we saw six cautions with five of them involving playoff drivers.
That’s why this was a huge win for Larson who had a clean day out of his No. 5 Chevrolet. It was the 10th victory at Texas for Hendrick Motorsports which breaks a tie with Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing for most all-time at the track. He’s also the fifth pole winner to win a Texas race and eighth to win from the front row.
HMS Texas winners:
- Terry Labonte (Spring 1999)
- Jeff Gordon (Spring 2009)
- Jimmie Johnson (Playoffs 2007)
- Jimmie Johnson (Playoffs 2012)
- Jimmie Johnson (Playoffs 2013)
- Jimmie Johnson (Playoffs 2014)
- Jimmie Johnson (Spring 2015)
- Jimmie Johnson (Playoffs 2015)
- Jimmie Johnson (Spring 2017)
- Larson (Today)
“We had a fast, fast car today, and we had a good couple stages, so even if I didn’t come out with the lead or the win or whatever, I wanted to play it smart and take what I could get,” Larson said. “I got good shots from behind me every restart and allowed me to get clear into 1 every time and then do some blocking for a few laps. Fine on all those restarts and we had a great race car to allow me to be aggressive with the blocks, and fast, too, to stay out in front of William.
His teammate William Byron finished runner-up in his No. 24 Chevrolet for his first top five of his career at Texas in Cup competition while Christopher Bell rebounded from being two laps down to score a third place finish in his No. 20 Toyota. He was also third in this very race a year ago too.
“(Larson) just (had) control of the lanes,” Byron said after another strong run. “It’s all about the push. And I think here at Texas, the shortest lane kind of wins because of the way the track kind of separates into Turn 1. Our Axalta Chevy was fast all day. We just never quite got control. I think he (Kyle Larson) was definitely better than us in that first Stage. And then I was right there with him the rest of the time and it was just clean air, basically.
“But congrats to those guys. Kyle really deserves it. They’ve been awesome all year and flawless on pit road; and pit calls and everything. Our team is right there and I think we’re building something really good for years to come.”
Brad Keselowski was the only other playoff driver in the top five in being fourth in his No. 2 Ford for his first top five on this track since 2017 and only his second in the last 11 Texas starts while Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five in his No. 4 Ford for his 13th career top five on this track which ranks fourth ever trailing only Jimmie Johnson (16), Kyle Busch (14) and Matt Kenseth (14).
Larson The Championship Favorite Again
Coming into the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, Kyle Larson took over as the favorite to win this year’s championship. He was on a rather hot streak. Larson, had made up 164 points from Mothers Day weekend until Daytona to close out the regular season.
Well, Larson got hot and Denny Hamlin cooled off and both went in extreme opposite directions which allowed Larson to become the fourth different regular season champion in five years.
Hamlin, kicked off 2021 with eight top five finishes in nine races. He was fifth that day in Darlington. Larson, was runner-up which sparked a hot streak for the Hendrick Motorsports driver that allowed him to close the gap rather quickly.
Larson, would finish in the top two six straight races and seven times in an eight race span including 10 top three finishes over the final 15 races.
Hamlin meanwhile, had five top fives in that same span but none of them were better than fourth.
Then came the playoffs. Hamlin, stormed out of the gates to a Southern 500 win. Larson countered with a win to close out the opening round at Bristol. Hamlin answered again with a victory in the Round of 12 opener in Las Vegas. Larson came back to win last Sunday’s second round finale on the Charlotte ROVAL.
Hamlin, had two wins, five stage wins including eight of his 12 stages seeing him finish in the top four to go along with a top 10 in all six playoff races.
Larson, had two wins, three stage wins including seven of his 12 stages being in the top four to go along with five top 10’s in six tries.
They’ve been throwing punches back-and-forth on track and each one is answering the others with what they are hoping to be the knockout blow. It’s just the fact that nothing they do is affecting the other.
Now, we’ve begun the Round of 8. Larson, pushed his name back into the championship favorite again. This was the first time Hamlin didn’t win the opening race of a round. He had won at both Darlington and Vegas but was 11th on Sunday in what was remarkable since he crashed twice late in the race. He only led two laps on Sunday as he had led 42% (645 of 1,534) laps this postseason prior.
Larson though, well this wasn’t too shocking. He’s been so dominant on 550 tracks this season. In 11 races now on them, Larson has four wins, three runner-ups, eight top fives and a top 10 in all but two. The only two he didn’t get a top 10 was in Kansas to where he led 132 of 267 laps and restarted in the top five on the final shootout but was incurred some damage on it. Then, it was Atlanta when he had problems on pit road.
He’s led 1,607 out of 3,247 possible laps (50%) in these 11 races which also accounts for 71% (1,607 out of 2,267) laps led on the season for him. Furthermore, he’s won 11 stages and has been in the top two in 14 of the 23 stages run on these tracks.
Four times has the winner of the seventh playoff race gone on to win the title, can Larson become the fifth? It happened in 2007 (Jimmie Johnson at Atlanta), 2011 (Tony Stewart in Martinsville), 2016 (Johnson in Martinsville) and 2018 (Joey Logano in Martinsville). The thing is, Texas has never been in this spot before, plus since the new format was adopted in 2017, only last year did we finish on two straight 750 tracks.
Last year, it was the penultimate race of this round, not the opener, and Kyle Busch a non championship eligible driver won. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, Kevin Harvick won and placed his name into the Championship 4 as a result but he never won the title in either of those years.
Like last year, the final race is on a 750 track, a type of package that Larson has been good on but mostly on road courses. He’s won four times on 750 tracks but only two were on an oval (Nashville, Bristol). He was runner-up though at Darlington (twice), Dover and COTA (road course).
His finishes on short ovals this year – 7th (Phoenix), 5th (Martinsville spring), 18th (Richmond spring), 2nd (Dover), 7th (Loudon), 6th (Richmond playoffs) and 1st (Bristol playoffs).
His car has been close, but now his team has the rare advantage of having two extra weeks to prepare his Phoenix car now as a result of his Texas win. Don’t think that won’t play a role.
The other thing is, we get practice back for Phoenix too. That is even more important in the sense by time we get to Martinsville, Larson’s Phoenix car should be ready to go. The other two drivers in the Final Four’s likely won’t. With practice back, the trucks now have to leave the shops even earlier in the week, meaning less time to massage the cars for those not already in heading to the cut race this round.
Does all this add up to a Larson advantage? He was only seventh in the spring race. He did have four straight top sixes prior to that, but is 0-for-14 there in general. Chase Elliott was 0-for-9 prior to his win last November so it’s still possible.
Does having practice help Larson get his car dialed in though? Does it help eliminate time for others to get their cars right too by them having less time in the shop? Does it also on the flip side negate all his speed shown this year with more time track time for others to catch up?
On top of that, can he take over anything from his Bristol win?
Larson is in a good spot for his first career Cup title and becoming the seventh different driver to win a title in the last eight years.
Plenty Of Troubles For Playoff Drivers
In the Round of 8, the biggest separation among these participants is not messing up. You’ll likely only have one spot to the Championship 4 available on points. More than likely, the three races this round will be won by playoff drivers. So, in order to win these races, you have to be flawless. Then, in order to take the wildcard spot too, you also need to be perfect.
All three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers had problems. So did Chase Elliott. So did Joey Logano. That’s five of the eight.
Chase Elliott battled tire problems in the second stage and only was 15th (last car on the lead lap) scoring no stage points for that segment. He was only eighth in Stage 1 meaning he had three stage points all day. Elliott, finished seventh. It was his best finish in his last five Texas starts, but Elliott has just two top fives in his last nine starts on the season and lost six points on the day.
Joey Logano blew an engine on Lap 298 and finished 30th. He had no stage points on the day and went from -11 to -43 with two races remaining. Logano, has one win this year and it was on a dirt track. That came 26 races ago as he’s only led 84 laps over the last 19 races overall and has six top fives in the last 24 starts. At Kansas, the spot of next weeks race, he’s had four finishes of 15th or worse in his last five. He likely has to win in order to get to the Championship 4. He had no stage points either on Sunday.
“I thought it was starting to maybe give up a little bit of power in that run,” Logano said. “We were just getting passed. Not really though. It just kind of let go. It is one of those days when nothing went right. The strategy didn’t go the way we wanted it to early in the race. Cautions didn’t fall the way we hoped they would and every time we started fighting our way back something happened and we ended up like this. Now we know what we have to do these next two weeks. We better go find a way to win.”
Martin Truex Jr. also had no stage points and was collected in a crash with Daniel Suarez with 15 to go. He finished 25th and falls to -22. He lost 28 points on the day as a result. Luckily for him, he has seven top six finishes in his last nine Kansas starts as well as two wins in his last three at Martinsville. The one he didn’t win he led 129 laps in this playoff race last year.
Denny Hamlin crashed twice in the end but did rebound to finish 11th. He also had eight stage points too which is why he gained two points on the field. This was the first time all playoffs he didn’t nab a top 10.
“I think we went a different direction with our car and we weren’t just as fast as we were in previous mile-and-a-half races,” said Hamlin. “I thought we were kind of a third-to-fourth place car on the long run, seventh-to-eighth on the short run. Just weren’t ourselves today in that case and then obviously getting in two wrecks at the end didn’t help, but the fact that there was a lot of attrition and the fact that the team did a phenomenal job fixing the car got us back up to P-11.”
Kyle Busch had an interesting day. He was speeding on pit road during the competition caution. He narrowly escaped the big melee on the restart but due to some slight left side damage, he pit for quick repairs during that second yellow of the day. Before we went back green, he was one of seven drivers to top off on Lap 37. That allowed him to stretch his fuel until the end to get a stage win. Good thing he did. That’s because while running in the top three near the midway mark of the second stage, his car went away from him. How much of that was a factor that his crew chief, Ben Beshore, was suspended for two missing lugnuts on the ROVAL. Did that cost them adjustments?
Busch, went backwards and never made that track position back up. He finished eighth but did gain nine points due to Elliott, Truex and Logano’s misfortunes and sits at +8.
“(Getting above the cutline is) about the only thing we got out of today,” Busch said. “We were just off. I don’t know how we missed it, why we missed it, or what but just taking off on fire off, there’s just no grip whatsoever. We would just chatter the front tires, so we missed it today. We missed it big time. I don’t know what is going on, but that wasn’t the way to perform on the opening day today. Thanks to Interstate Batteries. I appreciate all of their people that were with us today. I just feel bad that we didn’t do a better job. We have to go back to work. Next week is Kansas – same kind of thing.”
Keselowski/Blaney Have Good Days
With the misfortunes of five playoff drivers on Sunday and Kyle Larson in his own zip code, the Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney had strong runs and a lot they can hang their hats on. For Keselowski, he was the only other playoff driver outside of Larson to score a top five. He finished fourth in his No. 2 Ford. It was only his second top five at Texas since 2016 and just his fourth top five in the last 22 races on the season too. While he only gained one point in the standings as he went from -16 to -15, he said it was a positive as he’s no longer last among the eight in the playoff standings. Plus, it shows they can still challenge for this thing.
They just didn’t have the short run burst like Larson did and needed a long run to the finish. All those yellows really cost him his chance. Still, we head to Kansas next which is a place where Keselowski has four top fours in his last five starts.
Blaney was sixth in his No. 12 Ford for his seventh top eight in his last eight Texas starts. It was also his 12th top 10, 10 of which in the top six, in his last 16 races. He had 17 stage points too which helped him gain 16 points on the field as he entered the weekend +1 and leaves +17.
Byron, Bell, Reddick Outperforming Playoff Drivers
Too bad neither of William Byron, Christopher Bell or Tyler Reddick are still championship eligible. Byron and Bell were eliminated last round while Reddick was bounced in Round 1. That’s because they’re literally outperforming some of the other playoff drivers still.
Byron, finished second on Sunday for his second top three in the last five weeks. He looked to have the best car last week and was third in the closing laps before pushing too hard for the win. Reddick, was second last week, there again this week, but contact with Byron left him with some damage and he faded to ninth. Still, it was his third top 10 in the last four races.
“Man, we came so close today. We definitely gave it all we had and put everything on the line to try and find Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway. This Clark Pipeline Services Chevrolet team came so close. We had speed right from the start of the race, and Randall Burnett and the guys did a good job of keeping up with adjustments throughout the race. We cut a right-rear tire at one point so I’m glad we were able to recover from that. After the midway point of the race, our Chevy would get tight in the resin, and loose out of the resin, so it was interesting managing that today. At the end, we just didn’t get a good enough chance to make a run at the No. 5 car. Another car got into us on the second-to-last restart and that’s what caused us to fall back. I’m just glad we didn’t have to pit for a tire rub and could hang on to finish ninth. It was a little disappointing after running in the top-five and battling for the lead for most of Stage 3, but I know that this team is capable and we will get to Victory Lane soon.”
Bell, went from two laps down to third for his third straight top eight and fourth in the last six weeks.
“(Crew chief) Adam (Stevens) did a great job making the right calls – putting tires on at the end really helped us,” said Bell. “We kept gaining on this Rheem Camry every pit stop. I felt like we were pretty strong at the beginning of the race and then we kind of lost the handle in the middle stages and fell back and lost some track position, so fortunate to come home third for sure. I’m really happy for this 20 group. I think we have some strong races coming up.”
Is 500 Miles Too Long?
I often questioned if Texas’ races should be 500 miles in length. They’re rather snoozefests for the most part and for a majority of Sunday’s race, it followed script. While we had chaos in the final laps (6 cautions final 60 laps) compared to five yellows in the first 273 laps, some may point to look at how much drama we had in the final 100 miles. I get that. But it also was chaotic too and ruined the flow for most of the race.
We have six 500 mile races on the schedule this season. We have one 600 mile race. There’s two 500km races and 3 500 laps races. Some, myself included, have started speculating on if we should make only the crown jewels 500 miles in length or longer.
The Daytona 500, Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600 should remain. That’s about it. Atlanta should be a pair of 400 mile races. It’s debatable if Talladega should be like Daytona to have one 500 mile and one 400 mile race. Phoenix can remain with two 500 km and I like Martinsville as well as Bristol with 500 laps. Texas, well lets make this 400 miles and make this race more impactful.
It doesn’t matter what length it is, I feel like the same chaos would happen no matter the length. Plus, it gets the race over quicker.
This isn’t a crown jewel and should be grouped with the other 400 mile races on 1.5-mile tracks.
Kyle Larson swept each of the last two tracks with both having different races. Charlotte was a 600 mile race on the oval followed by a race on the ROVAL after. Texas was an All-Star race with a different package and a playoff race. He won both too.