Championship got away on pit stops and stall selection for other contenders at Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Arizona – A presumptive narrative entering the Cup Series season finale at Phoenix Raceway was that qualifying a day earlier essentially would be meaningless for the Championship 4 drivers.

But it essentially might have decided the title.

Kyle Larson led the final 28 laps to win the race and championship after his pit crew lifted him from fourth into first– and past contenders Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott — by changing four tires in 11.8 seconds during the final caution for its second-fastest pit stop of the season.

But while the swift service was critical, the Hendrick Motorsports driver likely wouldn’t have emerged with the lead without his team selecting the first pit stall – a privilege he earned by winning the pole position Saturday. Having the final stall before blending from the pits back onto the track allowed Larson to stomp the accelerator on exit without concern of a speeding violation — and it helped him take the lead before the final restart by nipping Hamlin, whose pit crew demonstratively celebrated after ripping off a 12.1-second stop that they thought had put their driver in the catbird seat.

“It’s funny because earlier Kyle said he didn’t know that qualifying mattered all that much,” No. 5 Chevrolet crew chief Cliff Daniels said. “Well, it absolutely did, to get that pit stall. What a big deal that was.

“He was saying that more in the context of there’s going to be an ebb and flow to the race, guys are going to be up front, not up front. I know that that’s how he meant that comment when he made it, but it was pretty funny to me to hear him say that.”

His championship rivals all had expressed similar sentiments over the past week about the first qualifying session in nearly three months during a season disrupted by the pandemic.

Conventional wisdom held that trying to win the pole at Phoenix hardly mattered for the Championship 4 teams for two reasons: 1) They still were guaranteed to be among the first four pit selections (which ensured they each would get decent pits, though qualifying still determined who would get the No. 1 stall); and 2) Starting position hardly seemed to matter in the race after Elliott won the 2020 championship race starting from the rear last season.

But Sunday’s 312-lap race came down to track position on the final stop, and Larson was in the catbird seat despite having what Hamlin said was “the fourth-best car.”

“It starts with the pit stop,” Larson told NBC Sports. “Without that pit stop, we are not champions.”

Daniels said Larson was “tied for third” in speed among the championship cars, adding that his handling was “terrible” halfway through the race despite leading a race-high 107 laps. The team made significant adjustments on every stop, including the pivotal final trip to the pits.

Truex, who fell from first to third during the final yellow, and Elliott, who lost one spot, both said their teams were hurt more by being slow on their last stops than by Larson benefiting from the first pit stall.

“Ultimately we needed to beat him off pit road,” Truex said. “It’s unfortunate, but we win and lose as a team.”

Hamlin said he had no regrets about his team de-emphasizing qualifying because “I don’t think we would have qualified as fast as he did anyway. Those cars were just superior to ours for the second half of the year in every aspect on the short run. So I don’t know if we would have qualified any different.

“(Larson) just had a blazing fast stop, and the pit stall was such an advantage from qualifying that that was it,” Hamlin said. “Once you get out front, that’s it.”

Daniels, whose crew chose the first pit stall for the final five races of the 2021 season (“so that was a really comfortable spot”), said Larson made no mock qualifying runs in the lone practice Friday. Daniels leaned on some info gleaned from a mock qualifying run by teammate Alex Bowman to put the finishing touches on Larson’s qualifying setup.

It paid off handsomely when Larson hugged the high line around the 1-mile oval to knock Elliott off the pole on the second-to-last qualifying attempt.

“All of our homework was done on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and I guess a little bit Thursday on qualifying,” Daniels said. “But none while we were at the track, which sounds crazy to say. We were going to run (the top lane) in (turns) 1 and 2 on the money lap, and then just pray (in turns) 3 and 4.

“So the plan that we established on Tuesday for how to go qualify is exactly what Larson executed, which is just incredible. Honestly, that had nothing to do with the car, that was all him.”

It’s the second consecutive year that pit stops played a major factor in the championship race; last year Brad Keselowski finished second after losing 13 spots in the pits with a car that timing and scoring indicated was fastest.

Here’s a Sunday breakdown for the three drivers who missed on a championship at Phoenix:


MARTIN TRUEX JR. (second)

How he nearly won: His No. 19 Toyota was the best car on long runs during the race and seemed to be in the catbird seat when cycling into the lead on Lap 252 by pitting under green just before a yellow flag (and staying on the lead lap).

How he ultimately lost: When the caution flew 30 laps later for debris, he lost two spots in the pits and could regain only one position.

What he said: “It didn’t go the way we needed. Then at the end there, not quite enough speed to get to (Larson) and then around him.

“We hung around right there where we needed to be, had a really good car, especially on the long runs early in the race. Track position was tough. Seemed like whoever was out front could drive away for 30, 40 laps and then you’d kind of race from there on until the end of the run.

“Felt like all of us were really equally matched, honestly. We were all really good, really fast. Whoever got out front seemed to be good on the short run, and then long run it was kind of back and forth between everybody all day it seemed like.

“So we did everything we needed to. We got a lucky break there with the caution when we pitted and got us the lead, and we were driving off into the sunset. We just didn’t have the short run speed all day, and then certainly with 20 to go it’s going to be hard to pass anybody out front in clean air. 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.”


DENNY HAMLIN (third)

How he nearly won: Despite failing to lead a lap in the championship finale for the second consecutive year, his No. 11 Toyota was much more competitive and was stalking teammate Truex for the lead until the final caution.

How he ultimately lost: He was second on the final restart, but Larson got a good jump, and Hamlin eventually faded to third.

What he said: “We were going to have to have this thing go a certain way, and it was going a certain type of way until 25 (laps) to go. The first half of the race, we were kind of mediocre compared to the field. But in the long run, we just were really fast. Just didn’t have that short run speed. It’s nothing to hang our head about. Obviously there’s disappointment, but there’s just nothing else I felt like I could have done differently.

“You think about it, and I think about it, that this is a great opportunity. This is the last generation of this car that I took a very good liking to over the last three years. We don’t know what the Next Gen car brings. We don’t know will our team be as good. Like there’s just many, many question marks that happens after this. That’s why we really put so much emphasis on, ‘Let’s try to win this, win this this year.’ But honestly, there’s just nothing else I could have done. There’s nothing else. I drove as hard as I could every lap. I didn’t have the speed for the first 20. It was evident in a lot of the restarts we had. It was actually overachieved in quite a few. But that was it. I have to live with the result because I can’t change it. Disappointed, absolutely, for sure. But I knew kind of going into today I was going to need the race to go a certain way. If it goes the way it did last year (without a caution over the final 112 laps), we’re probably winning.

“But it didn’t. We knew that our percentage was low, and that was the case. Many of these races come down to green-white checkers or shootouts at the end, and that just wasn’t our strength and hasn’t been ever.”


CHASE ELLIOTT (fifth)

How he nearly won: Led 94 laps and had the best short-run car during the race.

How he ultimately lost: Contact with Larson while battling for the lead flared out the No. 5’s right-rear fender, which made his Hendrick teammate harder to catch because of added downforce. Elliot also lost a spot on the critical final stop and scraped the wall over the last run.

What he said: “I kind of thought I had a run a little bit (on Larson), and I didn’t think there was quite enough room, and I thought he was going to come to the wall, so I was like, well, I’ll try to go to the bottom really fast, and then he ended up like not moving, and then I came down. It was just a really weird set of circumstances, ended up hitting him in the right rear and it flared the thing out.

“But yeah, just honestly really proud of our effort. I thought we had a really good car. Honestly I thought all four guys, to Martin’s point, were good. I felt like we all kind of had our moments really throughout the day. You get a caution with 20 laps to go, it’s going to be very difficult to run down and pass the guy that jumps out front in the restart. But yeah, proud of our team. Felt like we had a nice game plan coming into the week. Felt like our car did a lot of the things we wanted it to do. No major mistakes, just needed to be a little better in those first few sequences of restarts and pit stops there at the end.”