AVONDALE, Ariz.—Kyle Larson allowed the tears to flow as he took a victory lap around Phoenix Raceway while celebrating his first NASCAR championship.
A year ago, Larson watched the Phoenix season finale from the war room at Hendrick Motorsports, having been suspended by NASCAR and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing. During that experience, he witnessed the potential while watching Chase Elliott rise victorious in the desert.
But even Larson could not have imagined driving to a 10-win season and a NASCAR Cup title.
“Just thinking about the journey and how tough of a road it's been to get to this point for so long, but especially the last year and a half, and too, I think just the atmosphere, I haven't felt an atmosphere like this maybe ever,” Larson said. “With the pressure of this race and everything that was on the line, to win this championship -- every one of these fans made me feel it. I was trying to tell myself to just chill out, stop tearing up. I make fun of my dad all the time for crying, and I'm worse than he is.
“It's just so cool. So cool. So thankful. Thank you to Rick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon. We have so many people from Hendrickcars.com here, Hendrick Motorsports. This is just awesome, an awesome day.”
Larson’s fellow Championship 4 contenders—Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott finished second third and fifth with Ryan Blaney coming home fourth.
On Sunday, Larson started from the pole earning the first pit box—which would prove beneficial on the final stop. Elliott took the early lead until his progress was slowed by two cautions. First, when Bubba Wallace was punted into the Turn 4 wall after Ricky Stenhouse Jr. tagged Corey LaJoie on Lap 7. Cliff Daniels elected to bring Larson to pit road for adjustments and he dropped to 34th.
Six laps later, LaJoie and Stenhouse spun each other again and Blaney stayed out and assumed the lead and Larson climbed up to sixth. Truex was stout in the heat of the day. He took the point on Lap 51 and held serve for 28 laps to the Stage 1 win with Kevin Harvick, Elliott, Hamlin and Larson in tow. When the leader pitted on Lap 79, Truex’s jackman slipped and Elliott regained the lead out of the pits. Larson first flexed his muscle on the Lap 83 restart as he took Harvick and Hamlin three-wide to vault from fifth to third.
Truex dogged Elliott from the restart but couldn’t make the pass until Lap 120. His advantage was short-lived. Ten laps later, the first of three cautions would shuffle the lead from Larson to Elliott and back to Larson, who claimed the point on Lap 162 and held on for the Stage 2 win.
Larson maintained the lead through the Lap 197 restart, but Elliott was coming. Forty laps later, Elliott passed Larson at the start-finish line. Larson started to fade as Hamlin ran down the No. 5 Chevy and passed him for second in Turn 1 on Lap 245. Daniels called Larson to pit three laps later, but as the driver was making his way in that direction, Anthony Alfredo hit the wall in Turn 2. Truex had actually made his way onto pit road as the yellow flag flew. Crew chief James Small assuaged his driver, promising the move would work out.
On Lap 252, Truex cycled out to the lead for the restart flanked by his teammate Hamlin. Elliott and Larson lined up fifth and sixth behind Penske drivers Blaney and Joey Logano, but quickly rose to third and fourth, respectively.
Just as it appeared that Toyota would sweep the Championship 4 weekend, with Truex leading and Hamlin in tow, NASCAR called a caution on Lap 283 for a brake rotor laying in Turn 3. Suddenly, Larson’s championship hopes were rejuvenated. As he came to the pits, the No. 5 crew executed their second-fastest stop of the season to give Larson the lead by a nose over Hamlin. Truex and Elliott, who had damaged the No. 9 Chevy just prior to the caution, comprised the second row.
Chris Gabehart, Hamlin’s crew chief, reminded his driver, “You and your buddy are on the front row, but there will be no buddies after this.”
Still, Larson extended his lead on the restart as Hamlin faltered. While Truex chased Larson, Elliott went low on Lap 291, took Hamlin’s line out of Turn 3 and third-place. Ten laps later, Hamlin gained steam and regained third. With three laps remaining, Larson extended his lead to .797-seconds over Truex. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota continued to change his line, but it was too little too late.
“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.
“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.”
Larson sailed across the line with a .398-second advantage at the finish to secure Hendrick Motorsports 14th Cup championship.
“I knew the only way we were going to pull it off is if our pit crew got us off as a leader, and damn, they did,” Larson said. “That was just crazy. I tried to do as good of a job as I could down pit road without speeding, getting my sign as good as I could, and those guys nailed the pit stop and got us out the leader. I still had to fight through. Martin was really fast behind me. Our car was just gripped up enough for that length of a run that we could hold them off.
“So many people were able to give me a second chance and put me together with Cliff Daniels and everybody on this 5 car. I'm just the luckiest human being on this planet."
Throughout 2021, Larson was the class of the field. Prior to moving to Hendrick Motorsports this season, the 29-year-old driver from Elk Grove, Calif., tallied six wins, 56 top fives, and 121 top 10s. In 36 races this year, Larson amassed 10 wins, 20 top fives and 26 top 10s with an average finish of 9.1. Of his 5,794 laps led, 2,581 came over the past 36 races.
Jeff Gordon, who recruited Larson, described the effort as “unbelievable.”
“By the whole team, and Kyle Larson is a great talent,” Gordon said. “You give him a great race car and great race teams and he does amazing things. We've seen it before, seen it in other forms of racing. He and this pit crew and this team, they did it all year long. They got to this point. What a battle.”