AVONDALE, Ariz. — As NASCAR embarks on a new era with the Next Gen car, it’s well into a transition to new champions.
Phoenix marked the fourth time in the last five years that the Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series champions each earned their first series title.
The weekend started with Ben Rhodes’ deft driving in the Truck race, followed by the 24-year-old’s tipsy press conference, where he thanked his “good friend Bud (a can of Bud Light)” and later said “Libations are good. Championship is awesome.”
Daniel Hemric, 30, followed the next night by winning his first race in 208 NASCAR national series starts and claiming his first championship. He scored the victory with a bump-and-run on reigning series champ Austin Cindric coming to the finish.
Kyle Larson completed his remarkable season and the weekend by collecting his 10th Cup win of the season — 11th counting the All-Star Race — to capture his first series crown. It was his first championship in racing since he won the 2012 title in what is now the ARCA Menards Series East.
“I don’t know if there’s another race that could ever top this win here (Sunday), winning the Cup Series race at Phoenix for a championship,” Larson said. “It doesn’t get any bigger.”
The 2021 champions follow in what is becoming quite a line of first-time champs in a series.
Since Jimmie Johnson won five consecutive titles from 2006-10, only two drivers have won multiple Cup titles. Johnson won additional crowns in 2013 and 2016. Kyle Busch, the only active driver with two Cup championships, won his titles in 2015 and 2019.
Part of the trend is because of NASCAR’s winner-take-all-format in the title race. The best finisher of the four contenders wins the championship. One race for the crown can mean chance plays a bigger role in the outcome.
Had it not been for a late debris caution, Larson would not have had the opportunity to go from fourth to first on the final pit stop.
A two-car crash sent the Xfinity race into overtime, giving Hemric one last chance to get by Cindric to win the race and title.
“I knew I could race Austin hard, aggressively, respectfully,” Hemric said. “That’s the way we’ve raced each other all year.”
There were no late cautions in the Truck race, but the key moment might have come on the first lap when John Hunter Nemechek, who won a series-high five races this season, got into the wall.
Contact with another truck led to a tire going down and dropping Nemechek two laps down. He made it back to the lead lap but was never a factor. Nemechek returns to Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series for 2022 and another shot at his first Truck title.
Nocturnal crew chief
Cup champion crew chief Cliff Daniels revealed that he didn’t get any sleep before Sunday’s Cup race.
That’s not new. He says he doesn’t sleep before any Cup race.
“You can ask my wife, and I promise you all the time she lectures me: ‘You have to get sleep, you have to get sleep,'” Daniels said. “I cannot sleep because I hold myself to a really high standard, and I think the folks around me know that.”
Daniels said he went to bed at 9 p.m. in Phoenix the night before the Cup title race, but he knew it would be pointless.
“I saw every hour, every single hour all the way until I got up at 6:30 (a.m.),” Daniels said. “Somewhere around 2 a.m., I got up, drank some water, kind of walked around.
“We stay right over here where the (football and hockey) stadiums are. So I could see all the folks leaving after the hockey game, and they went out to the bars and stuff.
“And I’m going to be honest, there’s some Bible devotionals that I read and watch and listen to, and did that in the middle of the night. And I knew that my anxiety that I’ve had all year long probably wasn’t warranted, but it’s still a real thing.
“So when Larson was like, ‘Man, you didn’t sleep last night?’ I was like, ‘Dude, I haven’t slept all year. So I’m right where I should be. It’s okay.’ He’s like, ‘Really? I didn’t know that.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I hide it from you. It’s okay.’
“So, yeah, I never sleep the night before a Cup race. Probably never will. As long as he’s my driver. With Kyle Larson as your driver, you’re the weak link, not him. That’s the way I see it.”
It was nearly 19 months ago when Kyle Larson lost his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing and was suspended by NASCAR for uttering a racial slur during an online race.
While out of NASCAR, Larson spent time working to make amends and to mature. He also received a second chance to restart his NASCAR career when Hendrick Motorsports signed him.
“Eighteen months ago, I didn’t think that I was ever going to be in a Cup car again,” Larson said. “Strapping in for the Daytona 500 didn’t even seem real, let alone winning the championship.
“It’s definitely been a journey, a roller coaster. But I’m very thankful for my second chance and every opportunity I’ve been given in these last 18 months.
“Life is a crazy thing, and you’ve just got to stay positive through it all, and everything will hopefully work out for you.”
NASCAR President Steve Phelps praised Larson for his outreach since last year’s incident.
“I was so proud of how Kyle approached last season,” Phelps told NBC Sports. “He owned it. He went above and beyond to try to educate himself to learn to be a better person and he lives that now. You just see it. He’s true to everything he says. He’s authentic. I’m just so proud of him.”