Is Larson the new championship favorite for Phoenix again, why Texas win goes a long way towards preparing Phoenix car and if practice that weekend is an advantage or disadvantage

They say everything is bigger in Texas, right? Well, Kyle Larson’s asskicking in Sunday’s opening race of NASCAR’s semifinal round of the postseason was very customary for the LoneStar State. Larson, led the final 218 laps of the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 including a race-high 256 of 334 laps en route to the dominating win.

We all kept thinking it was coming though? All those late race cautions and all those opportunities for it all to go wrong for him. Someone was going to take advantage of the lack of cars on the lead lap and use their fresh tires to their advantage. Someone was going to be overly aggressive and get into Larson on one of those six late restarts surely.

Instead, no one could touch him. He was in a league all by himself. As he did in every other restart, Larson got a phenomenal launch in the final three lap shootout and won for the eighth time of the season.

“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.

“I was more just thinking about William and how I’m going to beat him because I felt like he was the only guy that really had a car capable of passing us in the lead. I mean, even all race long on all the other restarts and throughout those 50-, 60-lap runs, I was just trying to make notes in my mind of what he was doing behind me, how he was trying to figure out how to make runs and stuff. I felt like I was doing a good job of maintaining the runs that he was getting behind me.

“I was making notes of all that, and then obviously things are going to get more aggressive there at the end, so trying to make plans for if he’s behind me, if he’s side by side with me. Finally stayed side-by-side with me on the restarts, what to do, how aggressive I needed to be, stuff like that. You’re always trying to plan ahead and think ahead, so you’re not really in auto pilot ever throughout a race, even if it’s 500 miles. You’re just trying to plan and be prepared for any moment that might come up.”

FORT WORTH, TEXAS – OCTOBER 17: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, and William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on October 17, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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. He had a front row seat to watch Larson’s speed.

“(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.”

Now, is he the one to beat again for this year’s title? Just two weeks ago, we were asking if the title was now Denny Hamlin’s to lose. 14 days later, we’re asking again if it’s Larson’s. The seesaw effect between he and Hamlin has been fun to witness.

See, coming into the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, 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.

How?

Well, Larson got hot and Hamlin cooled off and both went in extreme opposite directions which allowed Larson to become the fourth different regular season champion in the last 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.

That’s it.

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.

He’s approaching a single season record for laps led too. He’s 28 laps shy of passing Kevin Harvick’s 2,294 for second most ever. Jeff Gordon has the most a 2,320.

FORT WORTH, TEXAS – OCTOBER 17: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on October 17, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

I definitely care,” Larson said of the laps lead record “I don’t know what the mark is or what the number is, but yeah, I’m probably 2,300 or so now, close to it. So yeah, that would be really, really cool. 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 am upset about if I don’t lead any laps in a race or anything, but once I am leading I want to stay in the lead to help catch that record or whatever.

“But you have to have a fast race car to do that, and our race car has been really good all season long, especially today to have a dominating run like we did. Hopefully these next few weeks are a lot like today.”

He only needs to lead 54 more laps and he will own the record for most laps led in a single season. He’s led at least 95 laps in four of the seven playoff races thus far. In fact, Kansas is next and he led 132 laps there in May.

But, this is where it all shifts. If he doesn’t chip a lot away at it on Sunday in Kansas, he may not do so the next two weeks. Yes, while Larson is the clear cut favorite, that’s undeniable, but we also have to question on if he can perform at a championship level in Phoenix.

That’s what matters. It doesn’t matter what he does for the other 35 races on the season now. It’s truly on if he can win at Phoenix, a place he’s 0-for-14 at. In all seven years of the Championship 4 format, the champion won the season finale. It’s likely going to take that in two weeks. Can Larson beat everyone to win in Phoenix is the question?

The final two races (Martinsville, Phoenix) are on 750 tracks. He failed to lead a single lap in Martinsville this April and led only one lap in Phoenix back in March. He’s actually only led 35 total laps during his career at Martinsville (13 starts) and only 72 at Phoenix (13 starts).

Larson, has won four times on 750 tracks this year, 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).

Can they do enough to make him better with a championship on the line in a couple of weeks at Phoenix?

Hamlin as an example led 276 of 500 laps earlier this year in Martinsville. He finished third. At Phoenix, he also finished third and led 33 laps. He was in the Championship 4 in each of the last two years and has been his best on 750 tracks. This pendulum could easily sway back into Hamlin’s favor over the final two races.

Plus, they have to hope the Penske trio don’t get anybody into the final round either. Phoenix has been a good track for them lately too. Joey Logano led 143 of 312 laps back in March and finished runner-up. Brad Keselowski led 19 laps himself and finished fourth. Ryan Blaney led 35 laps and was 10th. He actually won the first stage and was fifth in Stage 2. Keselowski, was third and fourth respectively in the two stages while Logano was second and first respectively.

That’s a stage sweep of each, 63% of the laps led (197 of 312) and two top four finishes and all three in the top 10. Both Logano and Keselowski were in the Final Four last year and know what it takes. Plus, Logano has nine top six finishes on 750 tracks this season which includes road courses. On short tracks, he was runner-up in Phoenix, sixth in Martinsville, third in Richmond, fifth at Dover, fourth in Loudon, fifth at Richmond 2 and 11th in Bristol.

They have the speed on the 750 tracks, it’s the 550 ones first that they have to worry about. How much can Larson close the gap to them?

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 in catching up.

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.

“I think part of what helps the Phoenix focus is just the timing of the schedule,” said his crew chief Cliff Daniels. “Since it’s a Friday, Saturday, Sunday show, the truck is going to leave like Tuesday of that week, and the way these race formats go, our hauler didn’t leave until Friday morning this week, so you’re just going to have two less days that week.

“So now we are very fortunate that we have a little bit more time just to really plan out the way the next three weeks can go with emphasis on Phoenix where if you’re not locked in right away, you’re kind of giving everything you can for that week, and to not be talking out of both sides of my mouth, we have really good cars in the system already coming for Kansas, already coming for Martinsville. I looked at them with a lot of our guys last week. Both cars look great, so we’re going to finish those out like they are already in process to be, and then when our Phoenix cars get in the system, make sure that they’re top-notch and ready to go.”

Does all this add up to a Larson advantage? He did have four straight top sixes prior to this year at Phoenix. 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?

“Well, I could kind of take it either way, really,” Larson said when asked if it’s an advantage or disadvantage if practice returns. “We had practice at the 600 and Nashville, and we won those two. I can’t remember what all races we’ve had practice at. But as far as the ovals go for practice, I think we’ve won those.

“It kind of doesn’t — like I said, it could go either way for me. I think yes, I’m probably — I like having practice to give yourself — it kind of helps your confidence out, whether it’s good or bad, leading into the race with practice. But it also gives — if your car is great or whatever, it gives other people an opportunity to make their car better.

“But our team has done a really good job this year when we have had practice of not like getting crazy with trying different things. You kind of just get a head start on the race and your adjustments, what they may be.

“Yeah, I haven’t really thought too much about the practice and qualifying or all that at Phoenix, but hopefully it’ll go good for us.”

He won two of the previous seven races that we had practice at this season. Was runner up in COTA and third in Indianapolis. He had a top three car also in Road America as well.

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.

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