CONCORD, North Carolina — Kyle Larson never thought this was a possibility. It nearly wasn’t. The defending NASCAR Cup Series champion sat 18 points above the cutline entering the Bank of America ROVAL 400 and scored 13 stage points in the process.
All he had to do in the final stage was maintain. He just won the last road course race in Watkins Glen to go along with being the last driver to win this race a year ago.
However, Larson made a costly mistake by slapping the wall coming out of the infield section late in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and is beating himself up over it afterwards.
Larson had to head to pit lane to repair a broken toe link as a result of the incident and would return 5 laps down. However, he had enough points, right?
Not even Cliff Daniels felt like they were in much danger at that time. Christopher Bell was needing to win and was currently outside the top 5. Daniel Suarez was also 5 laps down after battling a power steering issue that plagued him the entire second half of this race. His teammate Ross Chastain was 9 laps down after being behind the wall and coming back out himself after he too had contact with the infield wall.
That should have been enough of a buffer shouldn’t it?
Larson was still worried about the potential outcome ahead.
“As soon as I hit the wall,” he said on when the worry set in.
“Yeah, I mean, you give up that many spots, you know you’re going to be close. Then the caution there.”
Instead, it proved to be all for not. Larson was a shocking second round exit in a wild playoffs that have seen 5 of the last 8 champions of this sport all out of the playoffs right now.
Martin Truex Jr. (2017 champion) didn’t even make the playoffs. Kevin Harvick (2014 champion) and Kyle Busch (2015, 2019 champion) were each eliminated in the first round. Now, Larson joins them.
It took a perfect storm. It took William Byron getting his 25 points back via an appeal going his way. It took a caution to fly that only saw 2 of them in a race that featured inky stoppages for stage breaks. It took Bell winning. It took Cole Custer slowing. It took Chase Briscoe charging. It took Larson making a rare mistake.
Briscoe was running 5th then spun by Erik Jones on Lap 107 dropping him down to 25th. That put Larson back ahead of Austin Cindric by 5 points at that time. Then a caution came out. Larson was looking good again with Cindric not pitting and Briscoe pitting.
Larson was +9 coming to the final restart. Then Cindric made a run but was also spun by Jones in the bus stop and saw his championship hopes dashed then. Meanwhile, Briscoe on new tires was coming. He went from 21st to 12th to 9th while Larson was stuck 5 laps down without any positions to gain.
That pushed Briscoe in and Larson out.
“Yeah, I just made way too many mistakes all year long,” a dejected Larson said. “Made another one today. Ultimately cost us an opportunity to go chase another championship.
“Just extremely mad at myself. You let the team down a number of times this year, and let them down in a big way today.
“We’ll keep fighting. We’ll come back stronger. I’ll definitely come back stronger and smarter, make better moves out there. Just mad at myself.
“Bummer, but just got to move on.”
For Larson, it was a rough defense season. He won the 2nd race of the year in Fontana and then 2nd a week later in Vegas. However, he didn’t reach victory lane until August in Watkins Glen. He had 6 finishes outside the top 20 this season which is why he says he made way too many mistakes this year to repeat.
It’s a stark contrast from a year ago that saw Larson win 10 times and lead 2,581 laps. He’s led just 368 so far this season.
Only two drivers since 1995 have ever won back-to-back championships. Larson won’t be the third. He’s the first repeat champion to not make the Round of 8 since Kyle Busch was bounced in the Round of 12 in 2020. Every other defending series champion in this format has at least made the Round of 8.
Kevin Harvick won the 2014 title and was in the Championship 4 in 2015.
Kyle Busch won the 2015 title and was in the Championship 4 in 2016.
Jimmie Johnson won the 2016 title and was in the Round of 8 in 2017.
Martin Truex Jr. won the 2017 title and was in the Championship 4 in 2018.
Joey Logano won the 2018 title and was in the Round of 8 in 2019.
Kyle Busch won the 2019 title and was bounced in the Round of 12 in 2020.
Chase Elliott won the 2020 title and was in the Championship 4 in 2021.
“Go race hard,” Larson said on how he can make this up to his team. “There’s definitely no other person to blame but myself for today. I feel like our team put ourselves in position as well as we could on points. Got as many stage points as we could. I think it was plus 27 or 28 at the time when I screwed up. Just for no reason either. I wasn’t even pushing that hard at that moment. Got loose, caught my off guard.
“Yeah, just got to keep working on my craft, just be better, make a lot less mistakes.
“Like I said, I made way too many mistakes this whole year. You can’t win a championship like that. Yeah, no surprise that I made another mistake today and took us out of contention.”