For the first time since 2007, a NASCAR Cup Series driver has won 10 races in the season. Kyle Larson captured the checkered flag at Phoenix Raceway on November 7, notched his 10th points-paying win of the year, and won the first championship of his career after leading a total of 2,581 laps in the season.
Larson started on the pole and struggled to maintain pace at times, but he took advantage of a late restart and held off Martin Truex Jr. during the final 20-lap run to the checkered flag. Denny Hamlin finished third and defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott finished fifth overall after Ryan Blaney passed him before the start-finish line.
Truex and Hamlin had a sizable lead over the Hendrick Motorsports cars during the final stage after a long run developed. The two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers continued to build their advantage and set up a showdown between themselves. However, a surprising caution due to debris changed the complexion of the race with fewer than 30 laps to go.
Larson won the race off of pit road and lined up on the outside line with Hamlin next to him. He got a massive restart and jumped to the lead while Truex moved into second. The driver of the No. 5 continued to hold the advantage as the laps ticked down, ultimately crossing the finish line just ahead of the No. 19.
Pit Stops Remain Critical for Cup Series Contenders
The Hendrick Motorsports pit crews were some of the best in the Cup Series throughout the 2021 season and helped all four drivers secure wins. This trend continued on the final pit stop as Larson’s crew turned in the best stop and pushed him to the front of the pack.
The championship four drivers headed down pit road after debris on the track brought out the caution flag. Hamlin had gained the most during previous pit stops, but Larson’s crew turned in an 11.8-second pit stop under caution and gave him the lead. This was the championship stop that defined the season.
“There were so many points in this race where I did not think we were going to win,” Larson told NBC Sports reporter Rutledge Wood. “Without my pit crew on that last stop, we would not be standing right here. They’re the true winners of this race, they’re the true champions. I’m just blessed to be part of this group.”
The Curse of the Regular-Season Champion
There was a common theme that played out in the Truck Series, Xfinity Series, and Cup Series championship races, one that could potentially cause concern heading into 2022. All three regular-season champions struggled while fighting for their respective trophies. Though Larson avoided the curse and locked up his first title.
John Hunter Nemechek, the winner of five Truck Series races and the regular-season championship, was unable to truly fight for the title on Friday, November 5. He suffered damage on two different occasions, which caused the tires on the left side of the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota to go flat and drop him multiple laps down.
Nemechek’s team made repairs and enough adjustments to get him back into the top-10 during the final stage, but he did not have enough laps to chase down Zane Smith or Ben Rhodes. He ultimately finished seventh in the race and third in the championship standings.
The issues continued during the Xfinity Series race. AJ Allmendinger, the winner of five races and the regular-season championship, had major handling issues during all three stages of the title race on November 6. He could not keep pace with his fellow championship contenders and ultimately finished 14th after spinning, bringing out the caution, and pitting due to a loose wheel.
There were points during all three stages where it appeared that Larson would fall victim to the curse. He had some issues on pit road and spent several laps behind his peers. However, he and his team turned in a huge performance when it most counted.