CONCORD, N.C. — Kyle Larson’s bruised No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet sat on pit road looking more ready for a junkyard than any sort of celebration after Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at the Charlotte road course.
But the 26-year-old driver shared a smile after limping to a 25th-place finish; he had made it into the Round of 12 in the NASCAR Playoffs.
Thanks to Jeffrey Earnhardt’s stalled No. 96 Toyota.
“I could still see (Earnhardt) was stalled, so I come off the wall and I go through some gears and the whole time I’m going, ‘Just please don’t go, please don’t go, please don’t move,’ ” Larson said on pit road. “Made it through there and it kind of looked like he was starting to get rolling and I hit the wall again because I had a blown right-front and I was just able to get in line.
“So, it was pretty stressful the last 30 seconds of that race.”
Larson was one of several drivers collected in a wreck triggered by Brad Keselowski in Turn 1 that brought out the red flag with six laps to go. Once the red flag was lifted, Larson brought his mangled No. 42 Chevrolet down pit road for repairs twice under caution.
The repairs helped, but the car was still heavily damaged.
“I think our pit crew did an incredible job getting the car back together,” team co-owner Felix Sabates told a small group of reporters on pit road. “When he came on pit road, that car was a piece of junk. He went out because he had to make the speed and the camber was so far out the right-front tire was going to fall out of the car. So, we brought him back in and did with a hammer, put some nuts and bolts in there and he was able to finish the race.
“It’s a miracle.”
As Larson fought to maintain as many positions possible in the waning laps, he was also monitoring his fellow playoff drivers on the bubble.
“I was watching the board and I could see the big screen,” Larson said. “I could see the 9 (Chase Elliott) fell back and the 88 (Alex Bowman) passed him and I knew the 88 needed every point he could get at that point before they all crashed. I had kinda given up and then they said they all started crashing, so then I just started running hard just trying to get what I could. …
“You just gotta pray that something, I mean you hate to pray that something bad would happen to anybody, but kinda what you’re hoping for to keep your playoff hopes alive,” he continued with a chuckle. “Just cross my fingers and hope something crazy happens.”
It did; on the final lap coming to the checkered flag, leader Martin Truex Jr. and second-place Jimmie Johnson collided racing for the win, leaving Ryan Blaney to nab the victory in the final dash to the start-finish line. As the rest of the field raced to the finish behind the leaders, Daniel Hemric’s No. 8 clipped Earnhardt in the corner, causing the No. 96 to spin out and stall on the track.
Larson had already hit the wall once and blown a right-front tire. But there, he saw his chance and – though he hit the wall again doing so – pushed to pass the No. 96 and gain that precious playoff point that tied him for the final spot with Johnson and Aric Almirola. With Almirola and Larson earning a better finish at one of the races in the Round of 12 than Johnson, the No. 48 was out while the Nos. 10 and 42 were to the good.
For Larson, admittance into the next round is a chance for redemption; after a strong 2017 season, he was eliminated in shocking fashion at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 22 after a blown engine took him out of the race early.
He was the victim of misfortune that day. But Sunday, he had luck on his side.
“Maybe just a little good karma from the issues I’ve had the last couple years,” he said. “… This is damn good luck, so hopefully we can keep some good luck going.”
Sabates wouldn’t mind a little luck – or at least, little less nail-biting, heart-racing moments.
“If we don’t win (the championship) this year, you’re not going to see me at the race track next year,” he said with a slight chuckle. “ … My heart can’t stand it, I’m too old for this stuff.”