Kyle Larson caps dominant season with Cup Series championship

Kyle Larson, the season’s most dominant driver in the NASCAR Cup Series from start to finish, completed his run to the top by winning the 2021 championship Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.

Larson held off Championship 4 contenders Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott during the final restart on Lap 288 of the 312-lap event at the 1-mile Arizona oval. But it was the pit stop during the caution flag that won him the title. In a power move off pit road during the final round of stops, Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team used the first pit stall selection to his advantage, gaining the lead over Hamlin after entering pit road in fourth — the last of the Championship 4 drivers.

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“There were so many points in the race where I did not think we were going to win,” Larson said during his championship celebration. “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.”

Truex made a valiant effort to catch Larson in the closing laps, but came up just short of his second career championship by finishing second. Hamlin completed the podium spots with a third-place finish in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, while 2020 champion Chase Elliott finished fifth.

“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,” Larson 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,” he added. “Martin was really fast behind me. Our car was just gripped up enough for that length of a run that we could hold them off.”

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Larson, 29, from Elk Grove, California, took his career to a new level in 2021. The veteran driver more than doubled his career wins total this season, entering ’21 with six since his first full-time season.

By essentially every measure, 2021 marked Larson’s best season — and one of the best in modern NASCAR history. He’s one of just 11 drivers and holds of one of 17 instances where a driver has won 10 or more times in a year at the top level, joining a host of NASCAR Hall of Famers to do so.

Larson started out the 2021 season with a 10th-place finish at the Daytona International Speedway before picking up his first win since 2019 just three races later at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. From there, it quickly became evident he would be a force this season.

The No. 5 driver put together the best three-race stretch of anyone this year from Charlotte Motor Speedway to Nashville Superspeedway, winning a crown jewel, his first road-course victory at Sonoma Raceway and the inaugural Cup race at the Music City track. He added another over the summer, holding off Hendrick teammate Elliott for another road win at Watkins Glen International before scoring another four in the playoffs (Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Roval, Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway) leading up to Phoenix. Larson also won at Texas earlier this year in the All-Star Race.

Larson’s race win at Phoenix to earn the title was his 10th of the 2021 season.

“I think just thinking about the journey and how tough of a road it’s been to get to this point for so long, but especially the last year and a half, and too,” Larson said. “I think just the atmosphere, I haven’t felt an atmosphere like this maybe ever. With the pressure of this race and everything that was on the line, to win this championship — every one of these fans made me feel it. I was trying to tell myself to just chill out, stop tearing up. I make fun of my dad all the time for crying, and I’m worse than he is.

“It’s just so cool. So cool. So thankful. Thank you to Rick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon. We have so many people from here, Hendrick Motorsports. This is just awesome, an awesome day.”

Larson is signed on again to drive for Hendrick next year, along with his three ’21 teammates, positioning the longtime organization to once again compete for the title as NASCAR enters its Next Gen era.

The championship comes a year and a half after Larson used a racial slur while competing in an iRacing event during the pandemic shutdown in April 2020. Larson was suspended from NASCAR, lost his job driving Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet and did not race in NASCAR again until this year after being reinstated in October 2020.

The championship is Larson’s first at the national series level, though he also has a 2012 title in what was then the K&N Pro Series East. He has 12 wins in 108 career Xfinity Series starts, with two victories in 14 races in the Camping World Truck Series.