Kyle Larson wins in Phoenix to clinch NASCAR Cup Series title
Kyle Larson's 2020 season ended in shame. His 2021 season ended in glory.
Larson won Sunday's NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway and the season title that went along with the victory.
"I cannot believe it," Larson said after wiping a torrent of tears from his face, crawling out of his car, hugging his crew members and taking a big drink from his in-car water bottle.
"So cool. I cannot believe it."
The victory was the Hendrick Motorsports driver's 10th of the season and handed him his first Cup championship. It came in his first career Championship 4 race.
In getting the victory, Larson led a race-best 107 laps.
The winning effort got a major assist from Larson's pit crew when it moved him from fourth to first during a yellow flag stop with 30 laps to go.
"There were so many points in this race where I didn't think we were going to win," he said.
"Without my pit crew on that last stop, we would not be standing right here."
Finishing second in the race and the championship was Martin Truex Jnr of Joe Gibbs Racing.
Truex, who won the 2017 championship, finished .398 seconds behind.
"Second hurts. I'm not going to lie," Truex said.
"Especially with the car we had and the job the guys did. But that's racing, as they say. Sometimes you're just not on the right end of things.
"Gosh, second sucks. I hate it."
Third in the race and championship was Truex's teammate, Denny Hamlin, who was looking for his first Cup championship.
"I really liked where we were with about 25 to go," Hamlin said.
"Just exceptional on the long run.
"A really good year. A really, really good year. It just didn't pan out. We needed it to go green those last laps and it didn't."
Fifth in the race and fourth in the championship was 2020 champion Chase Elliott of the Hendrick team.
"I thought we brought a really good car and did a lot of things we were wanting it to do today. It just didn't work out," Elliott said.
"We'll be back stronger next year and try to give them a run."
Ryan Blaney of Team Penske, not a member of the Championship 4, finished fourth.
The winning move for Larson may have come on Saturday when he won the pole and the No 1 pit stall that came with it. He was running fourth when, with 30 laps to go, a caution flag waved. When the cars returned to the track from the pits, Larson had the lead.
From there, he held off Truex, who was cutting into the lead over the final laps.
For the first seven seasons in the Cup Series, Larson was a mid-level competitor, winning just six races during that time.
Then, four races into the 2020 season, the California native was fired by the Chip Ganassi Racing team for which he had driven all those years after he uttered a racist slur into an open microphone during a televised iRacing event.
Team owner Rick Hendrick, however, took a chance on Larson and the result has been stunning. In addition to the double-digit wins, Larson piled up 20 top five and 26 top 10 finishes.
"We've always known he's a wheelman," Hendrick said.
"He deserves this and what a year"
"I didn't even think I would be racing a Cup car a year and a half ago," Larson said.
"To win a championship is crazy."
Elliott, 25, was looking to become the youngest driver to win back-to-back Cup championships and the 11th driver overall to do it. The last driver to win two or more titles in a row was Jimmie Johnson, who won five in a row between 2006 and 2010.