Kyle Larson completes comeback story, wins first NASCAR Cup Series Championship
Kyle Larson led 107 of 312 laps and held off Martin Truex Jr by .398 seconds to win the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday. Larson caps off an incredible season with his 10th victory of 2021, his 16th career win, 20 top fives and 26 top tens. The California native also led a career-high 2,689 laps in 2021. By winning Sunday's race, and finishing ahead of fellow championship contenders Truex Jr, Denny Hamlin, and teammate Chase Elliott, Larson wins his first NASCAR championship in his ninth full-time season.
"To win a championship...is crazy," the speechless Larson said during his post-race interview. "I want to thank Rick Hendrick...I'm just blessed to be a part of this group. Every single person at Hendrick Motorsports, this win is for every one of you!"
Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, and Elliott finished out the top five. Aric Almirola, two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch, 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, and 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 10.
Larson, also known by his nickname "Yung Money", started his NASCAR Cup Series career in 2014 after being drafted, to use the NFL term, by Chip Ganassi Racing to drive the 42 car. From 2014-19, Larson would visit victory lane six times, four of those wins coming in 2017. Larson started in the first four races of 2020 before getting kicked out of his ride after using a racial slur during an online racing event away from the track. Various sponsors, such as McDonald's and Credit One Bank, ended their contracts with Larson. Many wondered if the 27-year-old would ever race in NASCAR again.
After the 2020 season ended, Larson was reinstated by NASCAR and given a second chance by one of the sport's most successful owners- Rick Hendrick. Hendrick, who has recruited the likes of Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr to drive for him, hired Larson to wheel the number 5 car. Larson would reward his car owner with 10 wins, including the infamous Coca-Cola 600 in May, the 269th victory by a Hendrick Motorsports driver. That victory would put Hendrick Motorsports atop the list of most wins by a NASCAR team, besting Petty Enterprises who had previously held the record for decades.
When asked if hiring Larson was a risky move, the 72-year-old Hendrick simply responded no. "I know how good he is," he said. "I'm just fortunate we were able to get him...what a wheelman he is."
Hendrick now has 14 championships and 280 wins as a team owner in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Truex Jr, Hamlin, and Elliott finished second through fourth in the Cup Series points standings, after Sunday's race, followed by Kevin Harvick to finish out the top five. Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, and William Byron capped off the top 10 in points.
NASCAR now enters its three-month-long offseason filled with a handful of drivers changing cars and teams as well as the much-anticipated debut of the Next Gen car.
NASCAR begins the 2022 season on February 20th with the "Super Bowl" of stock car racing- the 64th running of the Daytona 500.