After a suspension that spanned most of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, being dropped by sponsors and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing, Kyle Larson was given a second chance at NASCAR premier-season racing. The driver payed back his new boss with a dominant 2021 season that culminated in a 10th race win of the 36-race season Sunday in the NASCAR Cup Series Champion at Phoenix Raceway. That final win of the year resulted in the first NASCAR national-level champion for the 29-year-old Elk Grove, Calif., native.
“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.”
All four championship contenders ran inside the top-five most of Sunday’s 312-lap season-finale, often in the top-four positions. They also finished in the top-five with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin in second and third and Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate and reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott in fifth.
“We were just exceptional in the long run, which wasn’t too surprising,” Hamlin said. “Started running the 19 [Truex] back down there and got within a couple car lengths. Obviously, that debris caution changed a lot. Special congrats to Larson and their team. Any time you win 10 races in a year, you’re absolutely a deserving champion. They did a great job on the last pit stop and got him out there. It was over after that. Proud of my team, great effort adjusting on the car all day getting it so much better. Thank you to our partners at FedEx, Toyota, Jordan Brand – just a really good year, a really, really good year. It just didn’t pan out. We needed that thing to go green and it didn’t.”
Ryan Blaney passed Elliott for position late in the race to finish fourth.
Added to Elliott’s championship from a year ago, Larson’s new title is the second-consecutive for HMS and the 14thCup Series championship, overall for the organization.
The eventual champion led a race-high 107 laps and Elliott 94 for a combined 201 laps-led in the 312-lap race.
“There were so many points in this race where I did not think we were going to win,” Larson said. “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.”
Denny Hamlin was the only title contender who failed to lead a lap while his teammate, Truex, ran up front for 72 laps.
Kevin Harvick and Blaney were the two drivers who most consistently ran inside the top-five with the championship candidates. Blaney was the only other driver to lead a consistent number of laps, running up front for 33 laps en route to his top-five finish. Harvick led four of the remaining six laps befpre finishing the race in the eighth position.
“We had a good race. There was a group of us that were kind of behind the top-four guys that were racing pretty much all day,” Blaney said. “We had a good Mustang there on the last run and we were able to get up to fourth. I am really proud of that effort. It was a really good last run for Todd [Gordon, crew chief] before he hangs it up. I wish it was a win. I can’t thank him enough for the last couple of years, and I can’t thank this whole group enough for this year. It has been a lot of fun. Hopefully, we will be in the championship four next year.”
Truex won the first 75-lap stage after taking the lead from Harvick on lap 51.
Larson and Elliott started the race on the front row with Larson on the pole. After Elliott took the lead on lap two, Larson pitted during the first caution on lap seven. As a result of the stop, Larson restarted outside the top-30. But he cycled back up to the top-five when nearly everyone else pitted during the next caution that came out on lap 15.
The varying early-race pit strategies also put Blaney up front for several laps before he lost the lead to Harvick on lap 49.
Elliott led early in the second 115-lap stage after getting off pit road first during the caution between the two stages. Truex passed him for the lead on lap 120, but with another fast pit stop during a lap-129 caution, Elliott retook the position.
“I felt like our NAPA Chevy was really good, and I thought our team did a really good job preparing this week,” Elliott said. “I was really proud of our group. I thought we brought a really good car and did a lot of things that we were wanting it to do today, just didn’t work out, and the sequence of the way all that went certainly was unfortunate for us. But, look, proud of our team, a lot to build on, and also congrats to Kyle and Cliff [Daniels, Larson’s crew chief]. What an amazing season. Very, very deserving champions, and glad to see Kyle have success.”
A few drivers stayed out when the yellow flag waved on lap-155, but when the race restarted on lap 162, Larson took the lead and drove on to a stage-two win on lap 190.
Larson dominated the second half of the race. He did lose the lead, though, to Elliott on lap 236.
A lap 248 caution, then, worked in Truex’s favor. He was on pit road when Anthony Alfredo hit the wall because of a blown right-front tire and brought out the caution. Truex managed to get off pit road in front of the pace car to remain on the lead lap and cycled to the lead when everyone else pitted under the yellow.
Truex continued to lead until the final caution, the ninth of the race, on lap 293. Larson got out of the pits first during the final yellow and maintained that lead throughout the remaining laps, despite a late-race challenge from Truex.
“Clean air seemed to be a good bit of an advantage there,” Truex said. “Whoever got out front was there for 20, 30, 40 laps and then the long run cars would start coming around. I don’t know. Ultimately, we needed to beat them off of pit road. It’s unfortunate, but we win and lose as a team. I’m really proud of our efforts this year. Big thanks to everyone that makes it possible – Bass Pro Shops, Auto Owners, Reser’s Fine Foods, Toyota, TRD, Sherwin Williams, Oakley, Textron, Noble Aerospace, all of our partners. That’s three times that we’ve been second and that sucks. Second hurts, I’m not going to lie, especially with the car we had and the job the guys did. That’s racing, as they say, and sometimes you’re just not on the right side of things. We were on the right side of things to get the lead there, and weren’t able to hang on to it. If we could have had the lead, I think it would have been over, but that’s kind of how the 5 [Larson] did it. They had a hell of a season; congrats to them. Gosh, dang, it sucks. I hate it.”
Aric Almirola finished sixth, Kyle Busch seventh, Christopher Bell ninth, and Brad Keselowski was 10th in his final race with Team Penske.
“Yeah, it was a fun race. We couldn’t really catch any breaks today,” Keselowski said. “The first stage there we stayed out and got that long run and kind of got ate up. We recovered from that and got ourselves back in the hunt to sixth or seventh, and then, we pitted under green a little early to try to pick up some spots. But the yellow came out and trapped us a lap down. We were 23rd with like 50 go to and we drove back up through to 10th. I would have loved to see that race run a really long green there at the end to see what we could have done. It just wasn’t meant to be.”