Kyle Larson continued his mastery of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Season Sunday by dominating and winning the AutoTrader EchoPark 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, the first race of the playoffs round of eight. Sunday’s win, Larson’s second-straight and series-leading eighth, overall, of the season, clinched the drivers berth in the four-driver championship round in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway next month.
“Yeah, this is unreal,” Larson said. “I knew we had a good shot to win today, and our car was amazing. That’s probably the best 550 package, intermediate car, we’ve had all year. So thanks to everybody on this #5 team, HendrickCars.com, Rick Hendrick; this is so cool. We had a lot of people from HendrickCars here. We get to go race for a championship in a few weeks. This is crazy.”
William Byron, a week removed from his elimination from the playoffs, challenged his Hendrick Motorsports teammate for the lead for much of the race, including the closing laps, but had to settle for second in the HMS one-two finish.
Brad Keselowski challenged Byron for second in the final two laps after a late-race restart but fell back to fourth by the checkered flag.
“We gained a point but we moved up from eighth to sixth [in the standings], so that is a nice little win for us and gives us a better pit stall for next week,” Keselowski said. “If we can keep running like that and scoring high 30s or low 40s in points, then I think we will transfer in.”
Christopher Bell, who, like Byron, was eliminated from championship contention the week before, got by Keselowski on the last lap to finish third.
Another driver eliminated from the playoffs, Kevin Harvick, rounded out the top-five.
Playoff driver Kyle Busch won the first 105-lap stage, despite a pit-road speeding penalty during a lap-25 competition caution. He returned to pit road, again, to top-off his fuel tank when the yellow flag waved, again, soon after the first restart because of a 15-car crash that began with a Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. spin on lap 31. Other drivers involved in the crash included Alex Bowman, Justin Haley, Aric Almirola, Ross Chastain, Josh Bilicki, Ryan Preece, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Anthony Alfredo, among others. Busch even sustained slight damage from the incident.
“Just an embarrassment on my part,” Wallace said. “Just trying to get clean air, went to the middle and said, ‘Ah, this isn’t good.’ I backed out, and by the time I backed out, it was already around. So sorry to everybody that came here to cheer on the 23 car. I let everybody down, let my team down. So I apologize to them; we’ll go finish it out at Kansas.”
By the time the smoke cleared, the wreck involved more cars than any NASCAR Cup Series race crash in Texas Motor Speedway history.
Kurt Busch and playoff driver Ryan Blaney also pitted for an extra splash of fuel during the second caution. And, as a result, Kyle and Kurt Busch and Blaney didn’t have to pit under green-flag conditions late in thee stage.
Before green-flag pot stops in the final 15 laps of the opening stage, Larson and Byron combined to lead most of stage one. While race pole sitter Larson took four tires on his pit stop during the competition caution, Byron took the lead with a two-tire strategy.
Larson retook the lead on lap 83 — a lead he would give up to pit on lap 94.
After the stage-one win, Busch maintained his lead early in stage two before Larson took the position, again, on lap 117. Larson, then, dominated the second stage en route to a stage win on lap 210. Stage two was split in half by a debris caution on lap 165, eliminating the need for green-flag pit stops by the front runners. A few drivers, though, including playoff driver Chase Elliott, had already made their stage-two stops under green in the laps before the yellow flag. Elliott pitted early because of a vibration caused by a tire issue.
Byron got by Kyle Busch for second when Busch’s car got loose on lap 172 for a Hendrick one-two stage-two finish. By the end of the stage, Busch had dropped to 10th in the running order.
The HMS duo of Larson and Byron continued to run first and second for most of the 124-lap third and final stage of the race that included six cautions — a sixth caution for Chase Briscoe on lap 275, a seventh when playoff driver Joey Logano blew an engine on lap 299, an eighth for a fiery Alfredo crash on lap 305, a ninth caution when playoff driver Denny Hamlin spun on lap 313, a 10th when playoff driver Martin Truex Jr. crashed with 15 laps remaining, and an 11th for a Chrish Buescher crash that also involved Hamlin with six laps remaining.
“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.”
The caution for Alfredo’s crash turned into a red-flag period for track cleanup.
Logano and Truex were the only two playoff drivers who failed to finish the race.
Blaney finished sixth. Chase Elliott was seventh after starting in the back because of two pre-race inspection failures. Kyle Busch finished eighth.
“That’s about the only thing we got out of today,” Busch said. “Just, we were 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.”
Tyler Reddick was ninth after battling Byron for second late in the race, and Daniel Suarez finished 10th.