MARTINSVILLE, VA — One could say Kyle Larson is the forgotten driver competing for a championship next Sunday at the Phoenix Raceway. Due to being in the owners championship, Larson’s win last Sunday in Miami put his No. 5 Chevrolet team into the Championship 4 on the owners side.
For the first time under this format, the owners championship is different than the drivers. Normally, the same four drivers that make it to the final round represent the same four in the owners hunt. This year, it’s different. Larson joins Vegas winner Joey Logano, Martinsville winner Christopher Bell and Ross Chastain as the wildcard next Sunday in the Arizona desert in searching for an owners title. On the drivers side, it’s the same three in Logano, Bell and Chastain but Chase Elliott in place of Larson.
Still, for the second straight year, Larson won the eighth NASCAR Cup Series playoff race which as a result advanced him to the Championship 4. However, this year’s trip to Phoenix is vastly different than last.
Last year, he was fighting for the drivers title. This year, he’s going for just the owners.
A year ago he scored both, but due to him being eliminated from championship contention following the Round of 12 elimination race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, his personal goal of a repeat title was dashed. But, with how wild of a year this has been on the owners standings side, he’s still alive.
Some may think, what’s the big deal of an owners title? Well, money for starters. This is where bonuses and the big money is to be made. It’s to where each entry finishes in the owners side.
The owners side is the car number where the drivers side is just that, the driver. A prime example is the 23XI Racing conundrum.
Kurt Busch made the postseason via his Kansas win. Without a 16th different winner in the regular season, he and his No. 45 Toyota were playoff eligible. By him taking himself out, it opened up a spot for winless Ryan Blaney.
However, Blaney’s No. 12 Ford wasn’t eligible on the owners side by virtue of them being winless. 23XI Racing wasn’t about to take the 45 out of the owners race.
So, despite Busch being out, the 45 wasn’t. That’s why the swapped Bubba Wallace over to that ride when essentially he was still using everything from his No. 23 side. It was just a number swap.
A veteran in Wallace was better than a Cup novice like Ty Gibbs. Wallace won in Kansas and advanced the 45 onto the Round of 12. That’s where that cars’ championship dreams ended.
Larson’s No. 5 teams’ wasn’t. He marched onto the Round of 8 still. Remember, Blaney’s car isn’t eligible so on points, the 5 team remained alive.
Now, he’s in Phoenix with a championship still in sight and one that can get the 5 team a second straight owners title and in turn grants them large bonuses.
It’s why him coming to the desert with two straight top two results including a pole and runner-up on Sunday in Martinsville eye opening.
“The leaders lapped a lot of cars today,” Larson said. To me, it seemed to be very close to normal Martinsville, but maybe still a little bit harder to pass when you got within a car length.”
Next up is Phoenix which didn’t use to be one of his better tracks. Now it’s become one. Larson, has three Top-5’s in his last five there including being seventh and first respectively in 2021. He was however 34th this past spring after an engine went down. He was though seventh and fifth in the 2 stages. On like tracks this season, Larson was fifth and 14th at Richmond as well as 14th at Loudon.
“There is a lot on the line for us and our team,” he admits. “Two opportunities to bring Mr. H (Rick Hendrick) a championship and we would love to do that. We were decent at Phoenix earlier this year, but I’m sure we’ll be a lot better than we were the last time.”