There were tears of joy inside Kyle Larson’s No. 5 Camaro after crossing the finish line at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday. He had just won his 10th race of the year to cap off one of the most dominant seasons in recent NASCAR memory, but there was more to it than just adding another checkered flag to his collection.
A year ago, after sitting out most of the season due to a suspension and losing his job at Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson was at home watching Chase Elliott hoist the Bill France Trophy as NASCAR’s newest Cup Series champion. It wasn’t until October 19 that he received a conditional reinstatement, then got a second chance when Rick Hendrick signed him nine days later, making him Elliott’s teammate.
Kyle Larson made the most of his second chance to become the winningest driver in the series. He followed that up by advancing to the Championship 4, where, after 312 laps, he not only prevented Elliott from winning back-to-back titles but held off a pair of Joe Gibbs cars to win the race and the Cup title. To say he was ecstatic would be an understatement:
“I can't -- I cannot believe it. I didn't even think I'd be racing a Cup car a year and a half ago. To win a championship is crazy. This is unbelievable. I'm speechless."
On the emotions of the day. Larson said:
“I had a lot of thoughts, a lot of thoughts there those last -- really since before intros, right before intros, it all hit me. I had tears running down my face just doing the ride-around (after winning). The crowd was cheering loud, and it was just a different atmosphere than I've ever been a part of.”
How Kyle Larson's crew made the difference down the stretch
Kyle Larson was running fourth behind leader Martin Truex Jr, Denny Hamlin and Elliott when the caution came out on Lap 283. There was no question those four title contenders would pit, but with the first stall and one of the fastest stops of the afternoon, Larson emerged as the race leader.
Looking back on that final stop, Larson said:
“There were so many points in this race where I did not think we were going to win. 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.”
Larson jumped out to the lead on the Lap 288 restart, and while Truex got close — at one point getting to his quarter panel — it was not meant to be. Commenting on his final stop which allowed Larson to come out first, Truex said:
"I think if we would have had the lead, we could have held him off. But hindsight is 20/20, and we didn't have the lead, so here we are. Really proud of our team and our season. Come in here once again as underdogs and had a shot at it, so that was fun.”
Well, that ended quickly
At least Bubba Wallace can take solace from knowing he finally broke through with his first career Cup Series victory a month ago at Talladega. Unfortunately, his day ended prematurely after just five laps in the season finale when Corey Lajoie turned him into the Turn 3 wall, destroying the back end of his No. 23 Toyota. After exiting his car, Wallace gave Lajoie a sarcastic clap as he passed him under caution.
The end of an era
Sunday’s championship race at Phoenix Raceway was the final NASCAR broadcast on NBC Sports Network. Operations will cease on December 31. Cable coverage of the Cup and Xfinity Series will shift to the USA Network next year. Fox Sports 1 will remain the cable home for the first half of the Cup and Xfinity season while retaining exclusive rights to the Camping World Truck Series.
NASCAR Cup Series championship finale pre-race notes
• There was no pre-race tech as cars were impounded after Saturday’s qualifying. However, three contenders will be without crew members for the championship race after multiple inspection failures. Car chiefs Jesse Saunders (Kyle Larson), Brandon Griffiths (Denny Hamlin) and Blake Harris (Martin Truex Jr.) were ejected by NASCAR.
• Joe Gibbs was not at the track because he had a back procedure that kept him from traveling to Phoenix Raceway.
• Race purse: $10,053,801.00. Stages set for 75 / 190 / 312. Each team was allotted nine sets of tires, eight for the race plus the qualifying set, the latter not used to start the race.
• Manufacturers entered: Chevrolet 18, Ford 14, and Toyota 7.
• Cars to the rear: Josh Bilicki (No. 52 – Rick Ware Racing) and Timmy Hill (No. 66 – Motorsports Business Management) for unapproved adjustments. Hill failed to record a qualifying time, so he was scheduled to start last regardless.
The Last Ride (with teams)
› Brad Keselowski (Team Penske – moving to Roush Fenway Racing)
› Ryan Newman (Roush Fenway Racing – no contract for 2022)
› Kurt Busch (Chip Ganassi Racing – moving to 23XI Racing following the sale of CGR to Trackhouse Racing)
› Ross Chastain (Chip Ganassi Racing – moving to Trackhouse Racing following the sale of CGR)
› Ryan Preece (JTG Daugherty Racing – no contract for 2022. JTGR is scaling back to a one-car team)
› Matt DiBenedetto (Wood Brothers Racing – no contract for 2022)
› Quin Houff (StarCom Racing – no contract for 2022. Charter sold and will cease operations)
› Anthony Alfredo (Front Row Motorsports - no contract for 2022)
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› Michael McDowell (Front Row Motorsports – no contract for 2022)
Q. Was the NASCAR Cup Series finale at Phoenix an exciting race?