AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kyle Larson won.
That was the expected result of NASCAR’s season-ending Cup Series championship race, right?
Larson closed his comeback season by winning his first series championship Sunday. He capped his return from a nearly yearlong suspension with a title-winning victory at Phoenix Raceway.
“I can’t believe it,” Larson said, his voice quivering. “I didn’t even think I’d be a racing a car a year and a half ago. To win a championship? Crazy!”
Larson led seven times for a race-high 108 laps but was running fourth, last among the title contenders, as Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin controlled the championship late in a pair of Toyotas.
Then a caution reset everything.
Because he won the pole Saturday in qualifying, Larson had the first stall on pit road and the shortest sprint back onto the track of the four title contenders. He silently prayed for a flawless service call from his Hendrick Motorsports crew to get the No. 5 Chevrolet back on the track ahead of his three title rivals.
Larson’s crew performed its second-fastest stop of the season — a span that stretches 38 races — and Larson went from last among the final four to first.
Larson controlled the restart with 25 laps remaining, quickly cleared Truex, then held off several of Truex’s challenges. There was no stopping Larson, just as he had been impossible to stop all season, and he drove to his 10th Cup victory of the year.
He beat Truex to the finish line by .398 seconds.
“There were so many points in this race where I did not think we were going to win,” Larson said. “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. This is unbelievable. I’m speechless.”
Truex, the 2017 champion, finished second and was followed by Hamlin, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. Hamlin is 0-for-5 in championship finales and was the only driver among the final four contenders who did not lead a lap.
Truex has finished second in the championship standings three times in the four seasons since his 2017 title.
“Ultimately, we needed to beat him off pit road. It’s unfortunate, but we win and lose as a team,” Truex said. “That’s three times we’ve been second, and that sucks.”
Hamlin, who raced Larson all season for the regular-season title that ultimately went to Larson, has firmly maintained that Larson should be the champion. But it didn’t soften the blow of another title defeat for the three-time Daytona 500 winner.
“Proud of my team … just a really good year. … And things just didn’t pan out,” he said.
Chase Elliott, the defending champion and NASCAR’s most popular driver, led 94 laps but finished fourth.
“I thought we brought a really good car. … Just didn’t work out,” he said.
Larson seemed to have tears in his eyes on his cooldown lap as he celebrated a career-defining moment that last year he wasn’t sure would happen. He was fired four races into the season and lost nearly every sponsor for his use of a racial slur he used while racing online, and Larson retreated to his sprint-car roots to rebuild his life.
He volunteered for multiple grassroots organizations as he went on a journey to learn more about himself, as well as social justice issues. Rick Hendrick decided to give him another chance; he hired Larson once NASCAR lifted his suspension.
Larson won five of the 10 playoff races and tied Tony Stewart in 2011 for most wins in a playoff season.
Cliff Daniels, who took over as crew chief for seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson 22 races in the 2019 season, won his first championship. Daniels spent 58 races running the No. 48 team for Johnson, and they closed their run together with a fifth-place finish in last year’s season finale.
Daniels and his crew welcomed in Larson the next week.
––– By JENNA FRYER