Kyle Larson completed one of the best seasons in NASCAR history by winning Sunday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway to claim the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship.
An 11.8-second pit stop under caution from Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team gave him the lead entering the race’s final restart with 24 laps to go.
Larson, who closes the season with 10 wins, becomes the 35th driver to win a title in NASCAR’s premier series.
He does so after spending much of the 2020 season indefinitely suspended by NASCAR following his use of a racial slur during an April 2020 e-sports event.
During that period, Larson spent time working to make amends and to mature personally. He also received a second chance to restart his NASCAR career when HMS signed him to be their driver of the revived No. 5 car.
Now, Larson has given the powerhouse organization its 14th Cup crown.
“I cannot believe it,” Larson told NBC Sports after the race. “I didn’t think I’d be racing a Cup car a year and a half ago, and to win the championship is crazy. … There were so many points of this race where I did not think that we were going to win.
“And without my pit crew on that last stop, we would not be standing right here. They’re the true winners of this race. They’re the true champions. I’m just blessed to be a part of this group. Every single person at Hendrick Motorsports – this win is for all of us and every one of you.
“This is unbelievable, I’m speechless.”
After winning the Cup title in 2017, Truex has now finished second in points for the third time in the last four seasons.
“’18, ’19, ’21 – three years, we were right there and had a car capable of winning, and just for whatever reason, it didn’t go the way we needed it to,” Truex told NBC Sports. “And at the end there, not quite enough speed to get to (Larson) and around him.
“I thought if he’d stay on the bottom a little bit longer, I’d have a shot. But he moved up and I couldn’t do anything on the bottom. It is what it is. They did a great job, they had a great season. Congrats to them. We’ll come back and try again next year.”
Stage 1 began with the Championship 4 drivers taking different strategies off early cautions. Larson pitted for tires on the day’s first yellow at Lap 8, but cycled back toward the front when Elliott, Hamlin, and Truex made their own first stops during a yellow at Lap 16.
Ryan Blaney stayed out under the latter caution and kept the lead for the next 30 or so laps. But on Lap 51, Truex passed him for the race lead. While Blaney faded out of the top five, Truex pulled away to the stage win ahead of Kevin Harvick, Elliott, Hamlin and Larson.
During the stage break, Elliott jumped two spots to take the race lead off pit road from Truex, whose jack man slipped on his stop but did well to recover.
As Stage 2 progressed, Truex’s long-run speed helped him reel Elliott in. Over 35 laps into the run, he reclaimed the race lead from Elliott at Lap 120. A Quin Houff crash brought out the yellow at Lap 130 and brought the leaders to the pits. Elliott again was first off to take the race lead, while Truex fell to fourth and Hamlin fell to ninth with slow stops.
Two more cautions for incidents led to another round of pit stops under a yellow at Lap 156. There, Larson came out first ahead of Elliott. Several cars stayed on the track, but during the ensuing restart, the entire Championship 4 were able to pass that group unscathed. Larson went on to win Stage 2 ahead of Elliott, Hamlin, Truex Jr. and Blaney.
Larson, Elliott, Hamlin and Truex Jr. kept their positions through pit stops during the stage break and the restart to begin the final stage. Elliott took the race lead back from Larson at Lap 236, as Hamlin in third began to close in with long-run speed of his own.
On Lap 245, Hamlin passed Larson for second and began working to catch Elliott. Three laps later, Truex was the first of the Championship 4 to visit pit road. As his car was serviced, Anthony Alfredo slammed the Turn 2 wall to bring out the yellow at Lap 249.
However, due to the timing of the yellow, Truex was able to stay on the lead lap. And with the other Championship 4 drivers pitting, Truex stayed out to cycle into the lead while Hamlin was first off pit road ahead of Elliott.
Truex and Ryan Blaney (who was also pitting when Alfredo crashed) led the field to green with 58 laps to go. When the field shook out, Truex and Hamlin were first and second, while Elliott and Larson were in third and fourth.
As the run went on, JGR’s long-run speed – now bolstered by track position – allowed Truex and Hamlin to pull away.
But with 30 laps to go, debris from the car of David Starr brought out the caution to set up the money stop for Larson’s No. 5 team – which in turn set up Larson for the exclamation point on a stellar season.
STAGE 1 WINNER: Martin Truex Jr.
STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Larson
WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ryan Blaney finished fourth to lead the non-Championship drivers … Fellow Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski finished 10th in his final start for the team before moving to Roush Fenway Racing.
WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Bubba Wallace was first out after contact from Corey LaJoie sent him into the Turn 3 wall on Lap 7. After climbing out of his car, Wallace sarcastically clapped for LaJoie as he drove by. … Flat tires led to crashes for Quin Houff (Lap 129), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Lap 140), Chase Briscoe (Lap 155) and Anthony Alfredo (Lap 248). Houff’s team, Starcom Racing, announced this week that its charter will have a new owner in 2022.
NOTABLE: Larson is the third driver in the modern era to win the Cup title in his first season with a new team.
NEXT: The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season begins in earnest Feb. 6 with the exhibition Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The first points-paying race of the season is the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20.