For Kyle Larson, it all came down to the final pit stop.
Prior to the final caution with 30 laps to go, Larson was in fourth behind his other three Championship 4 competitors in the NASCAR Cup Series season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
But his pit crew turned in a lightning fast pit stop, and got him off pit road first.
From there, the 29-year-old held the point the rest of the way to score his 10th win of the season and – more importantly – his first career NASCAR Cup Series championship.
“I cannot believe it.” Larson 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.”
The Elk Grove, California native becomes just the eighth driver in series history to win a championship after not racing a full season the prior year. He was suspended by NASCAR after using a racial slur during an on-line racing event in 2020. After undergoing sensitivity training, Larson’s suspension was lifted and Rick Hendrick brought him to the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet for 2021.
And Larson made the most of it, winning more races than any other competitor and delivering the team their 14th Cup Series title.
“I’ve got to say first off thank you so much to Rick Hendrick, Hendrickcars.com, Jeff Gordon, NASCAR, every single one of my supporters in the stands, watching at home, my family,” said Larson, who led seven times for 107 laps on the day. “I’ve got so many of my friends and family here. My parents, my sister, my wife and kids. (Son) Owen had been giving me crap a month and a half ago about how I can’t win a Cup race when he’s there, so that added a lot of pressure.”
Larson started the day on the pole, but quickly lost the lead to his Henrick teammate and Championship 4 rival Chase Elliott.
Concern set in early when, under the first caution of the day on lap 7, Larson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, brought him to pit road for fresh tires and adjustments.
After restarting deep in the field, it evened out when another caution flew on lap 15, bringing the rest of the leaders to pit road while Larson stayed on the track.
While Truex, Jr. went on to win the first segment of the race, Larson stayed in contention. His pit crew got him back to the lead under a lap 155 caution, and it paid off when he came out on top of a three-wide restart for the lead. Larson went on to win the second segment over Elliott, Hamlin and Truex.
After coming out strong in the final segment, Larson lost the point to Elliott on lap 236. The race took a turn for Larson when the caution flew on lap 248. A cycle of green flag pit stops had just started, with Truex being in the middle of his pit stop when a caution flew for a crash by Anthony Alfredo.
It worked out for Truex, as he inherited the lead when the rest of the field hit pit road. Larson, meanwhile, came off pit road fourth behind Hamlin, Elliott and Joey Logano.
With 58 laps to go, Truex, jumped out front, with Hamlin and Elliott in pursuit. Meanwhile, Larson’s car appeared to fade, and he could not mount a charge on the lead pack.
But the luck swung back in Larson’s direction when the final caution of the day flew for debris with 30 laps to go. Larson’s crew stepped up and turned out a 11.8 second pit stop, getting him out in front of Hamlin, Truex and Elliott.
On the final restart with 24 laps to go, Larson held off an early challenge from Truex. Over the final few laps, Truex closed again, but couldn’t make a run as Larson scored the win and the title.
“There were so many points in this race where I did not think we were going to win,” said Larson. “Without my pit crew on that last stop, we would not be standing right here. They are the true winners of this race. They are true champions. I’m just blessed to be a part of this group. Every single man or person, man and woman at Hendrick Motorsports, this win is for all of us, and every one of you.”
Truex, Jr. ended up finishing in second, with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Denny Hamlin, in third.
“We did everything we needed to,” Truex said. “We got a lucky break there with the caution when we pitted and got us the lead, and we were driving off into the sunset. I don’t know what the caution was for, but just untimely caution for us and lost two spots on pit road and that was the race.
“Twenty to go, you’re not going to pass one of the fastest cars out there.”
“I really liked where we were at with about 25 to go,” said Hamlin. “We were just exceptional in the long run, which wasn’t too surprising, but started running the 19 (Truex) back down there and got within a couple car lengths and obviously that debris caution changed a lot.
“Special congrats to Larson and his team. Those guys, any time you can win 10 races in a year, you’re absolutely a deserving champion. They did a great job on the last pit stop and got him out there, and it was just set sail after that.”
Non-Playoff driver Ryan Blaney ended the season on a high note with a fourth place finish.
Dawsonville, Georgia’s Chase Elliott finished in fifth after his car faded late in the going. He was the last of the Championship 4, falling short of his second career title.
“Felt like we had a nice game plan coming into the week,” Elliott said. “Felt like our car did a lot of the things we wanted it to do. No major mistakes, just needed to be a little better in those first few sequences of restarts and pit stops there at the end.”
Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 10.
NASCAR Cup Series
Phoenix Raceway – Avondale, AZ
NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race – November 7, 2021
1. (1) Kyle Larson (P), Chevrolet, 312.
2. (12) Martin Truex, Jr. (P), Toyota, 312.
3. (6) Denny Hamlin (P), Toyota, 312.
4. (4) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 312.
5. (2) Chase Elliott (P), Chevrolet, 312.
6. (18) Aric Almirola, Ford, 312.
7. (13) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 312.
8. (9) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 312.
9. (8) Christopher Bell, Toyota, 312.
10. (11) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 312.
11. (10) Joey Logano, Ford, 312.
12. (15) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 312.
13. (7) Cole Custer, Ford, 312.
14. (16) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 312.
15. (23) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 312.
16. (5) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 312.
17. (3) William Byron, Chevrolet, 312.
18. (14) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 312.
19. (20) Tyler Reddick, Chevrolet, 312.
20. (31) Ryan Preece, Chevrolet, 312.
21. (17) Daniel Suarez, Chevrolet, 312.
22. (27) Erik Jones, Chevrolet, 312.
23. (19) Ryan Newman, Ford, 312.
24. (28) Michael McDowell, Ford, 312.
25. (26) Chris Buescher, Ford, 311.
26. (29) Justin Haley(i), Chevrolet, 310.
27. (32) B.J. McLeod(i), Ford, 309.
28. (33) Cody Ware(i), Chevrolet, 306.
29. (34) Joey Gase(i), Chevrolet, 303.
30. (37) Josh Bilicki(i), Ford, 303.
31. (38) Garrett Smithley(i), Chevrolet, 301.
32. (24) Corey LaJoie, Chevrolet, 281.
33. (36) David Starr(i), Toyota, Brakes, 273.
34. (30) Anthony Alfredo #, Ford, Accident, 242.
35. (22) Chase Briscoe #, Ford, Accident, 153.
36. (21) Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Chevrolet, Accident, 140.
37. (35) Quin Houff, Chevrolet, Accident, 122.
38. (39) Timmy Hill(i), Toyota, Handling, 57.
39. (25) Bubba Wallace, Toyota, Accident, 5.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 100.348 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 6 Mins, 33 Secs. Margin of Victory: .398 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 9 for 51 laps.
Lead Changes: 18 among 7 drivers.
Lap Leaders: K. Larson (P) 1;C. Elliott (P) 2-16;R. Blaney 17-48;K. Harvick 49;R. Blaney 50;M. Truex Jr. (P) 51-78;K. Larson (P) 79;C. Elliott (P) 80-119;M. Truex Jr. (P) 120-130;K. Larson (P) 131;C. Elliott (P) 132-155;K. Larson (P) 156;T. Reddick 157-160;K. Busch 161;K. Larson (P) 162-235;C. Elliott (P) 236-250;K. Larson (P) 251;M. Truex Jr. (P) 252-284;K. Larson (P) 285-312.
Leaders Summary: (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led) Kyle Larson (P) 7 times for 107 laps; Chase Elliott (P) 4 times for 94 laps; Martin Truex Jr. (P) 3 times for 72 laps; Ryan Blaney 2 times for 33 laps; Tyler Reddick 1 time for 4 laps; Kurt Busch 1 time for 1 lap; Kevin Harvick 1 time for 1 lap.
Stage #1 Top Ten: 19,4,9,11,5,24,41,12,1,21
Stage #2 Top Ten: 5,9,11,19,12,4,2,18,22,24
Championship Standings: 1. Kyle Larson – 5040 (10 Wins); 2. Martin Truex, Jr. – 5035 (4 Wins); 3. Denny Hamlin – 5034 (2 Wins); 4. Chase Elliott – 5032 (2 Wins).