AVONDALE, AZ — The playoffs were rightfully justified this weekend at the Phoenix Raceway. Unlike last year, the top driver of the season hoisted the Cup championship following the 36th and final race of the season.
Kyle Larson is known as young money but it was his pit crew with the money stop to put him back in the lead off pit road on Lap 284 as the Hendrick Motorsports native never looked back en route to his 10th victory of the season and earning his first career NASCAR Cup Series championship as a result.
That pit stop?
The second fastest of the season.
He’s the seventh different series champion in the last eight years of this format which the randomness of it was further exemplified on Sunday afternoon.
The Championship 4 drivers went 1, 2, 3, 5 in Stage 1. The lowest of the bunch?
On Lap 163, the four title contenders went 1-2-3-4 for the second time of the race and remained that way for the rest of the afternoon.
They went 1-2-3-4 obviously in Stage 2 but at that time, it was all HMS dominated with Larson leading Elliott. In fact, Larson would lead Elliott all the way until Lap 235 when Elliott stormed past him and looked like the new favorite to win his second straight title.
Larson, even faded back to third after Denny Hamlin got by a few laps after. Then, the race turned on its head. On Lap 249, Anthony Alfredo hit the SAFER barriers hard in Turn 2 bringing out the eighth caution of the day. At the time though, Martin Truex Jr. was already on pit road. He stayed on the lead lap and due to everyone else not pitting, it allowed Truex to cycle by them when they did under that caution period.
Truex, went from a distant fourth to first. Hamlin, exited pit road first on that sequence while the HMS duo were now third and fourth respectively.
My had the tables had turned.
The JGR tandem were pulling away from the HMS duo once we went back green. The clean air was key for them. They had much better long run pace than HMS did on Sunday, so the fact that they were 1-2 and facing a potential long run to the finish, the pendulum swung back to JGR.
Then that debris caution for David Starr occurred on Lap 283. The momentum and pendulum swung back in HMS’ favor. They had life back again and all it took was one final pit stop.
Larson’s crew as they had done all race, got him out first and he never looked back. He and Hamlin restarted on the front row with 24 to go and Larson, not Hamlin got the restart of his life.
Larson, cleared him early and Truex would pick Hamlin off shortly after. It was now a dual between Larson and Truex for the title. We would go caution free but Larson who had the fastest race car all season held Truex off by .398-seconds in giving HMS their 17th championship.
“I can’t — I cannot believe it. I didn’t even think I’d be racing a Cup car a year and a half ago,” Larson said. “To win a championship is crazy.
“I’ve got to say first off thank you so much to Rick Hendrick, Hendrickcars.com, Jeff Gordon, NASCAR, every single one of my supporters in the stands, watching at home, my family. I’ve got so many of my friends and family here. My parents, my sister, my wife and kids. Owen had been giving me crap a month and a half ago about how I can’t win a Cup race when he’s there, so that added a lot of pressure.
“There were so many points in this race where I did not think we were going to win. Without my pit crew on that last stop, we would not be standing right here. They are the true winners of this race. They are true champions. I’m just blessed to be a part of this group. Every single man or person, man and woman at Hendrick Motorsports, this win is for all of us, and every one of you.
“This is unbelievable. I’m speechless.”
But, the path to the title still wasn’t easy and the playoffs proved that it takes all 10 races still to decide a champion.
Sunday was Larson’s day. Heck, 2021 was Larson’s season. The regular season champion had an eventful playoffs all the way to the one-race take all season finale in the Arizona desert in which his No. 5 Chevrolet won the Season Finale 500 for his first Phoenix victory in 15 tries.
His path to this championship with Hendrick was far from easy. In fact, if you rewind to the start of this pandemic, I don’t think anyone saw this coming. Larson, owes everything he has to Rick Hendrick. The team owner took a chance on the young driver around this time last year and that move paid off. Larson, is a NASCAR Cup Series champion.
20 months ago, Larson used a racial slur during an online video game race on Easter night. It nearly cost him his career. He lost all his sponsors. He lost manufacturers support. That later cost him his seat at Chip Ganassi Racing is what was regarded as one of the more bizarre falls from stardom in recent memory.
Larson, was the hottest free agent on the market. He was going to have this pick on where he wanted to race next. It was likely going to come down to staying put with Ganassi or leaving for Hendrick Motorsports. The thing is, Larson liked to dirt race and whomever allowed him the most freedom to do so would have a leg up on the others.
Ganassi, we know that he was okay with it. Hendrick, well he was never too fond of his drivers participating in extra curricular activities in a race car outside of his Cup team. The path prior to his comment was heading back towards Ganassi. Once the slur occurred though, Larson went from a highly coveted driver to one teams avoided to associate with.
So, how did he end up from racing purgatory in a world of social unjust to a NASCAR champion in a span of 20 months?
“The thing that impressed me so much about Kyle (Larson) was his heart and the things he was doing above and beyond what he was asked to do,” Hendrick said last October when signing Larson. “I had to get comfortable with his heart and that he was really sincere. He was not afraid to tell everyone that it was a terrible thing, ‘sorry I did it. I’m going to make it right.”
Hendrick said then that he only reached out to Larson after the comments as a friend. See, Hendrick supplied engines for CGR and Larson was a driver there. They knew well of each other.
They didn’t talk racing initially though. Hendrick reaching out to Larson this past spring was to just be a moral support to him. He knew who Larson was and felt like when all the world was doing was bashing him, that Larson would need a friend.
It eventually developed into a something bigger as Larson was doing his best to rebuild his reputation off the track and keep winning on dirt tracks in the process. He was dominating on dirt and when he wasn’t racing a Midget or Sprint Car, he was traveling across the country taking diversity courses and learning about the African American culture.
NASCAR eventually reinstated him. He paid his dues and admits his faults and showed he’s deserving of a second chance in the sport. Hendrick, still had a ride available. Larson, was the best option.
“I definitely think there’s probably a lot of people out there that have concern about me,” Larson said then. “It’s not something that happens overnight. I think it’s something that takes time. I think people as they get to spend more time around me or get to see what I’m doing off the racetrack, outside the race car and get to really learn who I am. I think that’s when the forgiveness will be there and people will have a more open mind to forgive me.
“I know that takes time.”
To show just how much Hendrick believed in Larson, not only did he sign him, he signed him without a sponsor. In a day and age where it cost millions upon millions to run just one team, Hendrick was willing to do it out of his own pocket.
“If I presented his case to any sponsor, I would spend a lot of time explaining to them what he did and owning up to the mistake he made and the different person he is,” Hendrick said. I know that’s not going to be easy.”
He knew of Larson’s abilities and knew that all he had to do was sign him and the rest would work itself out. Sunday was a cumulation of all of that. He won in just his fourth race with the team. He’d end up earning nine wins in the season. He had six career wins entering.
Larson, led 2,577 laps this season. Took home 17 stage wins in the process. He had 3,213 laps led in his previous 223 starts to go along with 56 top fives. He had 20 top fives this season alone.
But, to get Larson, Hendrick had to changed his approach. He now allows his drivers to race outside of NASCAR. Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman showed up at more dirt races over last offseason and through this 36 race campaign.
“I don’t want to see him get hurt, but this is his love and I think it makes him sharper,” Hendrick said. “As long as it doesn’t interfere.”
Larson, won the Chili Bowl again. He won the Kings Royal. He won the BC 39. He won the Knoxville Nationals. That’s just away from the Cup circuit. Here, he won the Coca-Cola 600, the Bristol Night Race and now the championship.
After 46 wins last year away from NASCAR, he starts and ends 2021 with trips to victory lane. The last one was for a title.
From the lowest of lows to the highest of highs. This is the ultimate redemption story.
“I had a lot of thoughts, a lot of thoughts there those last — really since before intros, right before intros it all hit me. I had tears running down my face just doing the ride-around. The crowd was cheering loud, and it was just a different atmosphere than I’ve ever been a part of.
“This event was crazy. This format is wild. I’m glad we were able to get it done. And yes, a big shout-out to my parents for getting me involved in racing, my dad for everything he did, building my go-karts when I was young to get me playing around, my mom for videotaping every lap I ever raced and giving me something I could look at and study and get better.
“Gosh, so cool, I cannot believe it.”