Kyle Larson is the first driver to clinch a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series‘ Championship Round. He led 257 of 334 laps in Sunday’s Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, the first race in the Round of 8, to secure his ticket to the finale for the first time.
Kyle Larson started on the pole ahead of Denny Hamlin. Multiple drivers including Alex Bowman, Chase Briscoe, Chase Elliott, Justin Haley, Corey LaJoie, Garrett Smithley, David Starr, and Cody Ware were sent to the rear for failing pre-race inspection.
Stages #1 and 2
Until the competition caution on lap 26, Larson led every circuit while Joey Logano and defending Texas winner Kyle Busch followed. Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports team-mate William Byron had a strong start as he climbed from twelfth to fifth. Busch suffered a speeding penalty on his stop.
The ensuing restart led to just two corners under green before multiple drivers were involved in a wreck on the backstretch: Bubba Wallace got loose and shot into the outside wall as did Ross Chastain, causing a pile-up that collected Bowman, Haley, Ware, Joey Gase, Ryan Newman, and Ryan Preece. Busch, Aric Almirola, and Michael McDowell also suffered minor damage.
The race resumed on lap 40 with Byron leading. Larson retook the top spot on lap 83 before joining the wave of pit stops under green ten laps later, which briefly cycled the position to Hamlin and Busch. Busch would take the stage win ahead of Ryan Blaney, Larson, Kurt Busch, Byron, Briscoe, Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick, and Brad Keselowski. All but Kurt Busch, Byron, Briscoe, and Reddick were playoff drivers.
A pair of Kyles in Busch and Larson led the field to the start of Stage #2. Larson took the lead and continued to hold it as green flag stops commenced.
Debris on lap 166 resulted in a caution, during which Larson won the race off pit road. The next restart came on lap 171, which Larson won again. Despite Byron’s efforts to catch his team-mate and being able to close in on the outside coming to the finish, he could not complete the pass as Larson crossed the line first.
Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Briscoe, Reddick, and Kyle Busch rounded out the top ten.
With a push from Blaney, Larson propelled ahead of Byron at the gren flag. Kurt Busch brushed the wall due to a loose left-rear wheel and had to pit.
As Larson continued to lead, Byron battled with Harvick for second before staving off his challenge. As the two Hendrick drivers pulled away, Harvick fought with fellow Ford drivers Blaney and Keselowski.
On lap 274, Briscoe’s right-rear tyre blew out after hitting the wall while racing Hamlin. Another restart came eight laps later.
Logano’s engine expired on lap 298 for a caution and a damaging blow to his playoff hopes. Moments later on the restart, Chris Buescher spun across the apron after contact with Busch but saved it, while Anthony Alfredo was not as lucky as he was turned while racing McDowell and Briscoe into the outside wall. Alfredo’s car caught fire, as did part of the track surface where oil had spilled from the vehicle, resulting in a red flag.
“I saw the 17 (Buescher) sideways on the apron way lower than me and felt like he wasn’t gonna spin to a point they’d throw the caution and we were racing for the lucky dog so I was going hard and they stopped in front of me and I couldn’t check up fast enough,” Briscoe wrote in a Reddit comment.
Reddick pushed Larson ahead on the inside during the next restart before initating a duel with Byron for second. Hamlin stalked the duo before making contact with Blaney that resulted in a left-rear tyre rub. After a lap, the tyre gave way and he spun into the inside wall.
Larson and Reddick occupied the front row for the green flag with sixteen laps to go, and the former once again cleared his opposite. Byron and Reddick resumed their battle for the runner-up position, which enabled Larson to grow a slight advantage before everyone organised into single file. Ultimately, it mattered little as Truex was the next playoff driver with issues when he slammed into the turn four wall after getting loose off Daniel Suárez.
Truex’s retirement resulted in what would be the penultimate restart with nine laps remaining. Larson once again drove off with Byron in tow, while Reddick averted disaster when he was clipped by Harvick and nearly spun but stayed forward. Reddick and Byron collided and the former’s tyre suffered damage, causing him to fall through the order. With six to go, Buescher and Hamlin hit each other which sent the former into the inside wall on the backstretch.
A two-lap dash followed. As many expected, Larson had the advantage on the inside and surged ahead, while Byron was stuck in a tangle with Keselowski. With the scramble behind him, Larson drove off to win his eighth race of the season and first at Texas; his previous best was second in the 2017 spring race, though he won at the track in the Xfinity Series in 2016. The victory is also the first for Hendrick at Texas since Jimmie Johnson in the spring in 2017, while Johnson also scored HMS’ last fall win there in 2015.
“We had a good points lead or whatever from the cutoff going into it, but still, you know, Harvick had his issues last year and didn’t make the Final Four. That will always be on my mind,” said Larson in his post-race press conference; he will race in the Championship Round for the first time in his career, with his closest playoff push prior being a Round of 8 elimination in 2019. Larson is also the third Hendrick driver to reach the final round after Johnson in 2016 and Elliott in 2020; both won the titles.
“We had a fast, fast car today, and we had a good couple stages, so even if I didn’t come out with the lead or the win or whatever, I wanted to play it smart and take what I could get. I got good shots from behind me every restart and allowed me to get clear into (turn) one every time and then do some blocking for a few laps. Fine on all those restarts and we had a great race car to allow me to be aggressive with the blocks, and fast, too, to stay out in front of William.”
|1||1||5||Kyle Larson||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||334||Running|
|2||12||24||William Byron||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||334||Running|
|3||11||20||Christopher Bell||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||334||Running|
|4||7||2||Brad Keselowski||Team Penske||Ford||334||Running|
|5||24||4||Kevin Harvick||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||334||Running|
|6||4||12||Ryan Blaney||Team Penske||Ford||334||Running|
|7||6||9||Chase Elliott||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||334||Running|
|8||3||18||Kyle Busch||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||334||Running|
|9||9||8||Tyler Reddick||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||334||Running|
|10||19||99||Daniel Suárez||Trackhouse Racing Team||Chevrolet||334||Running|
|11||2||11||Denny Hamlin||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||334||Running|
|12||21||43||Erik Jones||Richard Petty Motorsports||Chevrolet||334||Running|
|13||13||21||Matt DiBenedetto||Wood Brothers Racing||Ford||334||Running|
|14||15||3||Austin Dillon||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||334||Running|
|15||26||14||Chase Briscoe||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||334||Running|
|16||17||1||Kurt Busch||Chip Ganassi Racing||Chevrolet||332||Running|
|17||16||34||Michael McDowell||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||332||Running|
|18||22||10||Aric Almirola||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||331||Running|
|19||20||41||Cole Custer||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||330||Running|
|20||29||7||Corey LaJoie||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet||329||Running|
|21||10||17||Chris Buescher||Roush Fenway Racing||Ford||327||Accident|
|22||35||78||B.J. McLeod*||Live Fast Motorsports||Ford||324||Running|
|23||38||66||David Starr*||MBM Motorsports||Ford||323||Running|
|24||36||15||Garrett Smithley*||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||321||Running|
|25||8||19||Martin Truex Jr.||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||320||Accident|
|26||33||52||Josh Bilicki*||Rick Ware Racing||Ford||319||Running|
|27||39||13||Timmy Hill*||MBM Motorsports||Toyota||317||Running|
|28||25||42||Ross Chastain||Chip Ganassi Racing||Chevrolet||311||Running|
|29||28||38||Anthony Alfredo||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||299||Accident|
|30||5||22||Joey Logano||Team Penske||Ford||298||Engine|
|31||30||00||Quin Houff||StarCom Racing||Chevrolet||59||Suspension|
|32||18||23||Bubba Wallace||23XI Racing||Toyota||38||Accident|
|33||14||48||Alex Bowman||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||36||Accident|
|34||27||47||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||JTG Daugherty Racing||Chevrolet||31||Accident|
|35||31||6||Ryan Newman||Roush Fenway Racing||Ford||31||Accident|
|36||23||37||Ryan Preece||JTG Daugherty Racing||Chevrolet||30||Accident|
|37||32||77||Justin Haley*||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet||30||Accident|
|38||34||51||Cody Ware*||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||30||Accident|
|39||37||53||Joey Gase*||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||29||Accident|
Italics – Competing for Rookie of the Year
* – Ineligible for Cup points