Kyle Larson snuck out of Richmond Raceway with a surprise victory in Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400 in the final race of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season.
Larson led the final three laps of a green-white-checkered overtime finish to secure his fourth win of the year, tying Martin Truex, Jr. – who saw his chances for his fifth victory go up in smoke after he and Denny Hamlin crashed on the final lap.
Joey Logano finished second, but fell one spot shy of the making the cutoff for the playoffs. Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch and Hamlin rounded out the top five.
Larson, who had only recorded one prior top five result at Richmond with a runner-up finish in this same race a year ago, notched his fifth-career Cup Series victory and secured the second seed for the start of the Cup Series playoffs behind Truex, Jr.
“I’ve got the greatest team out here and definitely the best pit crew,” Larson said. “That showed tonight. I can’t thank those guys enough. They were money all night long to gain spots. This win is a huge congrats to them. The Target Chevy was pretty good all night. The No. 78 (Truex) was definitely the best, but I thought I was second best for most of the runs.
“It came down to the last restart there, and I got a good start. I spun my tires pretty bad, and I was a little nervous, but we cleared him (Truex) into (turn) 1, and I was pretty excited about that. I’m really pumped for the playoffs. We’ve got a great shot at the championship, I feel like, this year. So I’m looking forward to it.”
Larson’s improbable victory was the culmination of a bizarre series of events that unfolded over the last 140 laps in what had been shaping up to be an anti-climatic battle for the final spots in the 16-driver playoff field, with drivers at the front and rear of the championship hunt jockeying to secure their positions.
Truex, Jr. had led 198 laps of the scheduled 400-lap distance and looked to be on cruise control in the waning laps of the race when Derrike Cope brought out the caution flag with four laps to go.
The yellow flag brought the field to pit road and Larson’s crew got the No. 42 Chevrolet out in front of Truex, Jr. and Hamlin for the final restart in a three-lap dash to the checkered flag.
On the restart, Larson quickly jumped out in front by ten car lengths as Truex and Hamlin duked it out for second place.
Just after the white flag, Hamlin and Truex made contact going into turn one, sending Truex nearly head-on into the outside wall. Hamlin was able to keep his car straight and limped home to finish fifth while Truex settled for 20th as the race ended under caution.
“We drove in really, really deep (in turn one) and when I got on the brakes, the splitter slammed down into the ground and shot me up the track into him,” said Hamlin. “But it’s unfortunate. Didn’t want to get into him. He’s a great teammate of ours.
“We struggled all day, definitely not a car that could contend. We were trying to make it better, but it was just getting worse and worse. It was a miserable day actually. They tell me I’m a hero around here. Today I was a clown.”
It was a rather inglorious finish for Truex, grudgingly accepted the regular-season championship trophy after clinching last weekend at Darlington.
“I wish we could have got the trophy last weekend. Yeah, I mean, tonight sucks, plain and simple, just the way it ended up,” said Truex, Jr. “Tonight is a little tough, it’s a little hard to be excited.”
Truex took the number one seed in the Cup Series playoffs, which begin next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway – the start of 10 races to decide the 2017 championship.
With the top seed already decided before the race even began, all eyes were on the four drivers vying for the final spots in the 16-driver field, as Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray were all on the bubble with Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones and Joey Logano hoping for a miracle to get themselves in the playoffs.
And while all Elliott, Kenseth and McMurray had to do nose was race the track and keep their noses clean to make the championship field, it was a bizarre incident under caution that nearly threw the playoff picture into chaos.
Danica Patrick and Austin Dillon made contact on lap 260 to bring out the fifth yellow flag of the night, but during the ensuing caution an ambulance rolled out onto the track and stopped just short of the pit road entrance while the entire field was coming into the pits.
The resulting bottleneck caused an accordion effect the saw several cars run into each other, including Kenseth, who ran into the back of Bowyer and punched out his own radiator, sending Kenseth to the garage.
Kenseth then had to spend the rest of the race sweating it out, holding out hope that another unique winner didn’t take the checkered flag – a scenario that would have eliminated him from the playoffs.
In the end, Kenseth made the cutoff by 88 points over Bowyer, taking the 16th and final spot behind McMurray.
“I saw an ambulance sitting there,” Kenseth said. “It was an accordion effect and I just couldn’t get stopped. I shouldn’t have been back there to start with and maybe I wouldn’t have gotten in a wreck.”
Among the drivers who missed the cut for a shot at the title was Logano, who needed a win to qualify for the playoffs due to his win earlier this year at Richmond being encumbered and not counting toward making the 16-driver field.
“Obviously it stings to come up one spot short and not be able to get into the playoffs,” said Logano. “It is what it is. It’s reality, and we will move on.”
Also missing out on the playoffs is Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who will be retiring at the end of this season. Earnhardt, Jr. needed a win to qualify and ended his night 13th, and will finish out his Cup Series career without a championship.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Richmond Raceway – Richmond, VA
Federated Auto Parts 400 – September 9, 2017
1. (4) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 404.
2. (12) Joey Logano, Ford, 404.
3. (27) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 404.
4. (3) Kurt Busch, Ford, 404.
5. (2) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 404.
6. (10) Erik Jones #, Toyota, 404.
7. (16) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 404.
8. (20) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 404.
9. (7) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 404.
10. (9) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 404.
11. (15) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 404.
12. (17) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 404.
13. (21) Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Chevrolet, 404.
14. (11) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 404.
15. (6) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 404.
16. (28) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 404.
17. (23) Aric Almirola, Ford, 404.
18. (14) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 404.
19. (8) Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Ford, 404.
20. (5) Martin Truex, Jr., Toyota, Accident, 403.
21. (31) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 403.
22. (32) Ty Dillon #, Chevrolet, 403.
23. (19) Danica Patrick, Ford, 403.
24. (13) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 403.
25. (18) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 402.
26. (22) A.J. Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 402.
27. (29) David Ragan, Ford, 402.
28. (26) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 402.
29. (33) * Corey LaJoie #, Toyota, 400.
30. (36) * Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 400.
31. (25) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 400.
32. (24) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 400.
33. (35) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 396.
34. (37) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 395.
35. (34) Gray Gaulding #, Toyota, 393.
36. (38) Derrike Cope, Chevrolet, 388.
37. (39) * B.J. McLeod(i), Chevrolet, Transmission, 318.
38. (1) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, Accident, 257.
39. (30) Landon Cassill, Ford, Accident, 33.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 99.417 mph.
Time of Race: 03 Hrs, 02 Mins, 52 Secs. Margin of Victory: Caution.
Caution Flags: 7 for 38 laps.
Lead Changes: 13 among 7 drivers.
Lap Leaders: M. Kenseth 1-89; B. Keselowski 90-92; Kyle Busch 93-104; R. Newman 105-108; Kyle Busch 109-110; K. Larson 111-129; Kyle Busch 130-153; M. Truex Jr. 154-257; K. Larson 258-286; M. Truex Jr. 287-334; D. Earnhardt Jr. 335-347; B. Keselowski 348-353; M. Truex Jr. 354-399; K. Larson 400-404.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): M. Truex Jr. 3 times for 198 laps; M. Kenseth 1 time for 89 laps; K. Larson 3 times for 53 laps; Kyle Busch 3 times for 38 laps; D. Earnhardt Jr. 1 time for 13 laps; B. Keselowski 2 times for 9 laps; R. Newman 1 time for 4 laps.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 18,42,14,20,78,22,77,4,24,41
Stage #2 Top Ten: 78,20,77,22,2,42,88,41,31,18
Top 16 in Points: 1. Martin Truex, Jr. – 2053 (4 Wins); 2. Kyle Larson – 2033 (4 Wins); 3. Kyle Busch – 2029 (2 Wins); 4. Brad Keselowski – 2019 (2 Wins); 5. Jimmie Johnson – 2017 (3 Wins); 6. Kevin Harvick – 2015 (1 Win); 7. Denny Hamlin – 2013 (2 Wins); 8. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – 2010 (2 Wins); 9. Ryan Blaney – 2008 (1 Win); 10. Chase Elliott – 2006; 11. Ryan Newman – 2005 (1 Win); 12. Kurt Busch – 2005 (1 Win); 13. Kasey Kahne – 2005 (1 Win); 14. Austin Dillon – 2005 (1 Win); 15. Matt Kenseth – 2005; 16. Jamie McMurray – 2003.