Kyle Larson wins 2021 NASCAR Cup Series championship
The final race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season and the Gen-6 car culminated in the Championship Round at Phoenix Raceway. In a battle of Hendrick Motorsports‘ Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott and Joe Gibbs Racing‘s Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr., it was Larson who came out on top for his first title.
Larson won the pole ahead of Elliott, while Hamlin qualified six and Truex twelfth.
Corey LaJoie was behind the opening stage’s two cautions after contact with Bubba Wallace on lap six, which sent Wallace into the wall, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on lap 15, causing Stenhouse to spin. After Larson and Elliott led through the two incidents, Ryan Blaney took the lead on the lap 21 restart.
Blaney led until Kevin Harvick took the position on lap 49. The two battled with Truex before the latter won out and drove off to the stage win. Harvick, Elliott, Larson, William Byron, Cole Custer, Blaney, Kurt Busch, and Matt DiBenedetto rounded out the top ten. Busch, along with Ross Chastain, were participating in the final NASCAR race for Chip Ganassi Racing before the team’s assets and Chastain head to Trackhouse Racing Team and Busch moves to 23XI Racing.
Elliott and Truex led the field to begin the second stage. After a lap of jockeying, the championship drivers occupied the top four.
Truex returned to the lead on lap 120. Eight laps later, Quin Houff wrecked to mark the next caution and a disappointing end to StarCom Racing, who announced they have sold their charter for the 2022 season. Busch suffered a speeding penalty during the ensuing stop, and he did not have much time to make a charge before the next caution came out a lap later for Stenhouse’s crash. Elliott retained the top spot for the lap 146 restart.
The accidents continued to pile up on lap 154 when Chase Briscoe spun with a flat left-rear tyre courtesy of a damaged side skirt, causing him to slam into the outside wall. Tyler Reddick and Busch were among those who stayed out and became the leaders for the lap 162 restart, though Larson quickly pounced to retake the top position.
Larson would score the stage victory ahead of Elliott, Hamlin, Truex, Blaney, Harvick, Keselowski, Logano, Kyle Busch, and Byron.
A Hendrick duo of Larson and Elliott comprised the front row as the final stage commenced. Larson continued to lead before being passed by Elliott on lap 236.
As Truex came to pit road on lap 266, Anthony Alfredo crashed for the first caution of the stage. While Hamlin beat Elliott off pit road, Truex and Blaney occupied the first two positions for the ensuing restart with 58 laps remaining.
A lap after the green flag, Hamlin joined Truex in the top two while Larson and Elliott were blocked by Team Penske‘s Blaney and Logano. The Hendrick drivers successfully got by the Penske pair by lap 259. Much like in 2020, the top four—the Championship Four—pulled away from the field to battle among themselves.
David Starr‘s car lost its brakes after a rotor exploded, causing debris to fall in turn three to generate a caution on lap 282. Larson was the first out of the pits ahead of Hamlin and held the outside for the crucial restart with 24 laps left.
A great restart surged Larson to the lead with Truex in tow. Truex, whose car proved to be stronger on longer runs, attempted to close the gap as he and Larson dueled for first. By the ten-to-go mark, the two were over a second ahead of Elliott and Hamlin, with the latter taking third. Larson’s advantage on Truex ballooned to over seven-tenths of a second at said point.
Truex would ultimately fail to catch Larson as he drove off to his tenth win of the season and his maiden NASCAR championship. Hamlin finished third and Elliott fifth, with Blaney breaking up the contenders by placing fourth.
Larson secures the fifteenth driver’s championship for Hendrick and second straight. He is the sixteenth driver to win double-digit races in NASCAR’s modern era (beginning 1972) and the first to do so since Jimmie Johnson, formerly a Hendrick driver, in his 2007 title-winning season. It is also his first championship in a NASCAR-sanctioned series since he won the now-ARCA Menards Series East in 2012, while he became the first person to claim a Cup title in his début season with a new team since Kevin Harvick won in 2014 with Stewart-Haas Racing.
“There were so many points in this race where I did not think we were going to win,” Larson told NBC. “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 had tears running down my face just doing the ride-around. The crowd was cheering loud, and it was just a different atmosphere than I’ve ever been a part of.
“This event was crazy. This format is wild. I’m glad we were able to get it done. [A] big shout-out to my parents for getting me involved in racing, my dad for everything he did, building my go-karts when I was young to get me playing around, my mom for videotaping every lap I ever raced and giving me something I could look at and study and get better. Gosh, so cool, I cannot believe it.”
Elsewhere in the field, various drivers concluded their tenures with their teams. Brad Keselowski finished tenth in his final start for Penske before moving to Roush Fenway Racing‘s #6; Ryan Newman, whom Keselowski will replace, was twenty-third. Chastain and Kurt Busch respectively finished fourteenth and sixteenth to conclude Ganassi’s run in NASCAR (perhaps fittingly, Larson formerly raced for Ganassi), while Houff’s retirement ends StarCom’s existence with a thirty-seventh-place classification. Matt DiBenedetto was twelfth in his last start for Wood Brothers Racing and Justin Haley, set to compete full-time in the Cup Series for Kaulig Racing in 2022, ends his Spire Motorsports employment in twenty-sixth. For every team, it was the final race for the sixth-generation Cup car before the Next Gen car arrives in 2022, ending a nine-year run.
|1||1||5||Kyle Larson||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|2||12||19||Martin Truex Jr.||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||312||Running|
|3||6||11||Denny Hamlin||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||312||Running|
|4||4||12||Ryan Blaney||Team Penske||Ford||312||Running|
|5||2||9||Chase Elliott||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|6||18||10||Aric Almirola||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||312||Running|
|7||13||18||Kyle Busch||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||312||Running|
|8||9||4||Kevin Harvick||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||312||Running|
|9||8||20||Christopher Bell||Joe Gibbs Racing||Toyota||312||Running|
|10||11||2||Brad Keselowski||Team Penske||Ford||312||Running|
|11||10||22||Joey Logano||Team Penske||Ford||312||Running|
|12||15||21||Matt DiBenedetto||Wood Brothers Racing||Ford||312||Running|
|13||7||41||Cole Custer||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||312||Running|
|14||16||42||Ross Chastain||Chip Ganassi Racing||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|15||23||3||Austin Dillon||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|16||5||1||Kurt Busch||Chip Ganassi Racing||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|17||3||24||William Byron||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|18||14||48||Alex Bowman||Hendrick Motorsports||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|19||20||8||Tyler Reddick||Richard Childress Racing||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|20||31||37||Ryan Preece||JTG Daugherty Racing||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|21||17||99||Daniel Suárez||Trackhouse Racing Team||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|22||27||43||Erik Jones||Richard Petty Motorsports||Chevrolet||312||Running|
|23||19||6||Ryan Newman||Roush Fenway Racing||Ford||312||Running|
|24||28||34||Michael McDowell||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||312||Running|
|25||26||17||Chris Buescher||Roush Fenway Racing||Ford||311||Running|
|26||29||77||Justin Haley*||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet||310||Running|
|27||32||78||B.J. McLeod*||Live Fast Motorsports||Ford||309||Running|
|28||33||51||Cody Ware*||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||306||Running|
|29||34||53||Joey Gase*||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||303||Running|
|30||37||52||Josh Bilicki*||Rick Ware Racing||Ford||303||Running|
|31||38||15||Garrett Smithley*||Rick Ware Racing||Chevrolet||301||Running|
|32||24||7||Corey LaJoie||Spire Motorsports||Chevrolet||281||Running|
|33||36||13||David Starr*||MBM Motorsports||Toyota||273||Brakes|
|34||30||38||Anthony Alfredo †||Front Row Motorsports||Ford||242||Accident|
|35||22||14||Chase Briscoe||Stewart-Haas Racing||Ford||153||Accident|
|36||21||47||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||JTG Daugherty Racing||Chevrolet||140||Accident|
|37||35||00||Quin Houff||StarCom Racing||Chevrolet||122||Accident|
|38||39||66||Timmy Hill*||MBM Motorsports||Toyota||57||Handling|
|39||25||23||Bubba Wallace||23XI Racing||Toyota||5||Accident|
Underline – Championship Round driver
Italics – Rookie of the Year
† – Competed for Rookie of the Year
* – Ineligible for Cup points