Late caution and fast stop wins Cup Series championship for Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson rode around Phoenix Raceway, with tears streaming from his red eyes. He grabbed the championship flag, burned his tires down and performed a Polish victory lap, where he dropped the flag on the backstretch. He hopped out of his car and hugged every member of his crew.

“I can’t — I cannot believe it,” he said. “I didn’t even think I’d be racing a Cup car a year and a half ago. To win a championship is crazy.”

Afterwards, he took his son, Owen, for another victory lap, with the flag he dropped. It fell, again, however, and lodged itself in his left-rear tire.

At the victory stage, Larson climbed out, hoisted his son onto the roof of the car, while confetti shot out.

It was the culmination of a journey, both on and off the track, as he earned his 10th victory of the season to win the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship.

AVONDALE, Ariz. – NOVEMBER 7: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane as NASCAR President Steve Phelps looks on after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7, 2021, in Avondale, Arizona. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

After David Starr dropped a brake rotor in Turn 3 with 30 laps to go, everyone came down pit road. Larson’s crew turned out a fast stop and he exited pit road with the lead.

“I knew the only way we were going to pull it off is if our pit crew got us off as a leader, and damn, they did,” he said. “That was just crazy. I tried to do as good of a job as I could down pit road without speeding, getting my sign as good as I could, and those guys nailed the pit stop and got us out the leader.

“I still had to fight through. Martin (Truex Jr.) was really fast behind me. Our car was just gripped up enough for that length of a run that we could hold them off.”

AVONDALE, Ariz. – NOVEMBER 7: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, leads the field during the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7, 2021, in Avondale, Arizona. Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Martin Truex Jr. sat in the catbird seat, thanks to a timely caution during the final cycle of green flag pit stops. The aforementioned untimely caution, however, and a slow stop during it, lost him the lead and he lost his opportunity for a second championship.

And he doesn’t know what more he needed.

“The clean air seemed to be a good bit of an advantage,” he said. “Whoever got out front was good for 20, 30, 40 laps, and then the long run cars would start coming around.

“I don’t know, ultimately we needed to beat him off pit road. It’s unfortunate, but we win and lose as a team. And really proud of our efforts this year.”

After leading 72 laps, he brought his car home to a runner-up finish.

Teammate Denny Hamlin rounded out the podium, but didn’t turn a lap out in front of the field.

Ryan Blaney and defending series champion Chase Elliott rounded out the top-five.

Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top-10.

Late caution and fast stop wins Cup Series championship for Kyle Larson

Race summary

AVONDALE, Ariz. – NOVEMBER 7: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 07, 2021, in Avondale, Arizona. Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Larson led the field to green at 3:41 p.m. ET. He led the first lap, but Elliott, who got loose in Turn 3, powered by him in the dogleg to usurp the lead on Lap 2. Larson pitted under the first caution, while most of the field stayed out. During the second caution, the field pitted, while he and seven other drivers stayed out. Which handed the lead to Blaney.

By Lap 40, Harvick reeled in Blaney and worked an overtake for the next nine laps. On Lap 50, he overtook Blaney for the lead, who took it back the next lap. By Lap 52, Truex passed them both for the lead and won the first stage. While on pit road, under the first stage break, his jackman stumbled, as he rounded the car, and Elliott left pits with the race lead.

Back to green on Lap 84, Elliott pulled away from the field. Deep into the run, however, Truex flexed his long-run speed, ran down Elliott and passed him for the lead on Lap 120. Under the fourth caution, everyone came down pit road on Lap 131. Truex’s front tire changer had trouble with the right-front, and he lost the lead to Elliott.

Likewise, after Chase Briscoe pounded the wall on Lap 155, everyone pitted and Larson exited ahead. Tyler Reddick, Kurt Busch, Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez stayed out and led the field back to green on Lap 162. Larson wasted no time overtaking them, as he dove onto the apron on the restart and took the lead. He held off Elliott, who nudged him into Turn 3 at one point, to win the second stage.

Just before the final cycle of green flag pit stops, Elliott reeled in and passed Larson for the lead on Lap 237. Truex hit pit road on Lap 247, just as Anthony Alfredo blew a tire and slammed the outside wall in Turn 2. As a result, he cycled to the lead. Meanwhile, Hamlin exited pit road ahead of Elliott and Larson.

Late caution and fast stop wins Cup Series championship for Kyle Larson

What else happened

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit Corey LaJoie in Turn 3 on Lap 7. Which sent him into Bubba Wallace, who spun and rear-ended the wall. After climbing out of the car, Wallace walked up the track and sarcastically applauded LaJoie, when he passed the damaged No. 23 car.

2020 race winners with goose eggs

Three drivers with a win, last season, failed to win, this season.

Harvick, who won a series-leading nine victories in 2020, notched a goose egg in the win column for 2021. It’s his fourth winless season of his Cup Series career, first since 2009 and first ever winless season with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Cole Custer and Austin Dillon failed to reach victory lane in 2021, after scoring wins in 2020.

The curtain call

AVONDALE, Ariz. – NOVEMBER 7: Team owner Chip Ganassi during pre-race and Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, embrace on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7, 2021, in Avondale, Arizona. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Sunday was the end of the line for Chip Ganassi. He announced on June 30 that he sold his NASCAR operations to Trackhouse Racing, effective at the conclusion of the 2021 season. Chip Ganassi Racing won 27 races in the Cup Series (15, if you don’t consider CGR as a continuation of SABCO Racing), but never finished higher than third in drivers points, thanks to Sterling Marlin.

Barring an offseason announcement, Ryan Newman possibly ran his last NASCAR Cup Series race. If it’s the end, then he finishes with 18 wins, which ties him for 47th on NASCAR’s all-time wins list. His 51 career poles, however, places him ninth on the all-time pole winner list.

Keselowski ran his final race with Team Penske. After the race, he, Joey Logano and the rest of the team toasted with glasses of beer on pit road.

Sunday marked the final race of the Gen-6 car (also the COT, which the Gen-6 was really a continuation of), as well as five lug nut wheels.

Late caution and fast stop wins Cup Series championship for Kyle Larson

Nuts and bolts

AVONDALE, Ariz. – NOVEMBER 7: Crew chief Cliff Daniels and Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, celebrate after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7, 2021, in Avondale, Arizona. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The race lasted three hours, six minutes and 33 seconds, at an average speed of 100.348 mph. There were 18 lead changes among seven different drivers, and nine cautions for 51 laps.

And that’s a wrap on NASCAR for 2021. Now the league goes into offseason mode, until February.

TOP IMAGE: Christian Petersen/Getty Images


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