Monday, December 6, 2021

Larson ends comeback season with first NASCAR title

Avondale, Ariz. (AP) – Kyle Larson won.

No surprise, is it? After all, he was the favorite of the overwhelming 2-1 betting. To win NASCAR’s season-ending championship race.

Almost all of last season was suspended for using racial slurs, Larson kicked off the comeback season with a title-winning win at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, his first championship in NASCAR.

Larson was in tears during his cooldown laps as he reflected on his rebuilding from NASCAR Drivers’ Cup champion.

“Eighteen months ago, I never thought I’d be in a cup car again. Strapping in for the Daytona 500 didn’t even feel real, let alone winning the championship,” Larsen said. “It’s definitely been a journey, a rollercoaster. I’m so grateful for my second chance and every chance I’ve been given in these past 18 months. Life is a crazy thing. Just stay positive through it.”

Larsson led seven times for a race-high 108 laps, but finished fourth as teammates Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin were the last of the title contenders. Controlled the championship late in a pair of Toyotas.

Then a caution resets everything.

Because he won pole on Saturday in qualifying, Larsen had the first stall on the pit road and the shortest sprint on the track of the four title contenders. He quietly begged his Hendricks Motorsports crew for a flawless service call to get the No. 5 Chevrolet on track ahead of its three title rivals.

Wow, what a delivery by the number 5 team.

Larsson’s crew made their second fastest stop performance of the season – a span that spans 38 races – and Larsson went on to finish first of the last four.

“I knew the only way we were going to pull it off was if our pit crew removed us as a leader, and damn, they did. That was just crazy,” Larson said. “Those guys made a pit stop.”

Larsson controlled the restart with the remaining 25 laps, clearing Trux quickly, then facing many of Trux’s challenges. Nothing could stop Larsson, as if it was impossible to stop him all season, and he secured his 10th Cup win of the year.

He beat TrueX by an easy .398 seconds to the finish line.

“There were a lot of points in this race where I didn’t think we were going to win,” Larsson said. “Without my pit crew at that last stop, we wouldn’t have stood here. He is the true winner of this race. They are true champions.

“I am blessed to be a part of this group. Every single man or person, man and woman, at Hendricks Motorsports, this victory belongs to all of us, and to each of you. this is incredible. I’m speechless.”

Truex, the 2017 champion, finished second, followed by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin. Hamlin is 0 for 5 in the championship final and was the only driver among the last four contenders who did not lead on Sunday’s lap.

Truex has finished second in the championship standings three times in the four seasons since their 2017 title.

“Ultimately, we had to beat him on a pothole road. It’s unfortunate, but we win and lose as a team,” Truex said. “It’s three times we’ve finished second, and it sucks. Second one hurts, I’m not going to lie, especially with the cars we had and the work people did.”

Hamlin, who ran Larsson throughout the season for the regular title title, which eventually went to Larsson, has firmly stated that Larsson should be the champion. But that didn’t lessen the blow of another title loss for the three-time Daytona 500 winner.

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“Any time you can win 10 races in a year, you’re absolutely a deserving champion,” Hamlin said. “He did a great job at the last pit stop and got him out of there, and after that he just left. Proud of my team… A really good year. Really, really good year, and things are just over.” Didn’t happen.”

Chase Elliott, the defending champion and NASCAR’s most popular driver, led 94 laps but finished fourth.

“I was really proud of our group. I thought we brought a really cool car … just didn’t work out,” Elliott said. “But look, proud of our team, so much to look forward to, and congratulations to Kyle too… a very, very deserving champion, and glad to see Kyle succeed.

“When you are a good driver and a good person and you surround yourself with good people, success is certain. It’s good to see.”

It looked like Larson had tears in her eyes as she celebrated a career-defining moment she wasn’t sure would happen last year. He was fired from four races in the season and lost nearly every sponsor for his use of racial slurs while racing online, and Larsen retreated from his sprint car roots to rebuild his life.

He volunteered for several different grassroots organizations as Larson went on a personal journey to learn more about himself and about social justice issues. It was Ric Hendricks who decided to give him another chance and hired Larson after NASCAR lifted his suspension.

Larson watched last year’s championship race from the competition complex at the Hendricks Motorsports campus in North Carolina. A year later, he led Hendricks to his 14th Cup title.

“I never thought I was taking a risk. I know how cool he is, I’m lucky we were able to have him, and man, what a wheel he is,” Hendricks said. “Won ten races, with 11 All-Star races. It’s unbelievable.”

Larsen won five of the 10 playoff races and tied Tony Stewart for the most wins in a single playoff season in 2011. He also broke Jeff Gordon’s 20-year record for most laps in a season. The 29-year-old from Elk Grove, Calif., joins Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Jimmy Johnson as the champions of the Golden State.

It was Hendrick Motorsports’ 280th win, overtaking Petty Enterprises in May and Larsen as NASCAR’s most winning team. The team has won 14 championships in 27 years.

Cliff Daniels, who took over as crew chief for the 2019 season saw seven-time champion Johnson win his first championship. Daniels spent 58 races running the number 48 team for Johnson, and he closed his run in last year’s season finale with a fifth-place finish as Johnson crossed the finish line behind four title contenders. took.

Daniels and his crew welcomed in Larsen the following week, running a 10-point run and a $1 million All-Star race, and now winning the Cup title.

Larsen’s victory stoked Toyota’s bid to sweep the championship weekend. Toyota drivers won the Truck and Xfinity Series titles to open the weekend, but Larsen handed Chevrolet the biggest trophy of them all.

Chevrolet had already claimed the manufacturer’s title in the Cup and Xfinity ahead of the weekend.

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More AP Auto Racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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