By STEPHEN HAWKINS, AP Sports Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) – Kyle Larson was ready to play smart in the final rounds in Texas. He also had a fast car that stayed ahead through all restarts to secure the first of four championship spots in the NASCAR season finale.
Larson led 256 of 334 laps on the 1 1/2 mile track and earned his eighth victory this season. He led the final 218 laps, staying ahead for seven restarts in the final leg, including three late after incidents involving playoff contenders Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.
“Even though I didn’t come out with the lead or the win or whatever, I wanted to play smart and take what I could get,” Larson said. “But I got some good punches behind every restart, and it allowed me to clear my head in (turn) 1 and block for a few laps. … We had a great race car to allow me to be aggressive with the blocks, and fast too. “
Already with a significant points lead, having closed the second knockout round a week earlier with a road course victory in Charlotte, the opening round of 16 provided the first chance to enter the championship on four November 7 in Phoenix.
There were two laps left in the final restart, and with a push from playoff contender Brad Keselowski, Larson was able to stay ahead of teammate William Byron.
“Kyle really deserves it, they’ve been awesome all year, flawless on the pit lane and they’re doing everything right,” said Byron.
The remaining seven playoff contenders leave Texas with two more chances to advance to the title, with Kansas and Martinsville remaining before the final. Texas had consistently been eighth in the last 10 races and the middle race in the third and final playoff round, heading into this season.
Ryan Blaney, Hamlin and Kyle Busch are above the cut line going to Kansas, where Busch won earlier this year. Defending Cup champion Chase Elliott is fifth, ahead of Keselowski, Truex and Logano.
Larson’s first appearance in the NASCAR Four Championship comes the same season Rick Hendrick gave him the opportunity to return to the Cup Series. He also won in Texas in the pointless million dollar All-Star race in June.
Larson, 29, who made his Cup debut in 2013, also won his previous All-Star race, in 2019 with Chip Ganassi Racing. But he missed the big-ticket show last year and the rest of this season while suspended for using a racial slur during a live broadcast during a virtual race when NASCAR was on hiatus. during the pandemic. It cost him almost all the sponsorships, his seat with Ganassi and almost his career before Hendrick signed him before this season.
“We’re going to run for a championship. It’s crazy, ”Larson said.
Keselowski’s fourth place was the best among other playoff drivers, with Blaney, Elliott and Busch finishing sixth through eighth.
“Well, we didn’t need all those yolks,” Keselowski said. “We needed the long runs to be able to keep them honest. We had speed on the long runs, but the 5 and 24 were just really quick on the restart and pulled me away. I just wanted a few laps to let their things go. user.. “
Hamlin was on the outside of a three-wide situation with 20 laps to go when Blaney made contact with the No. 11 Toyota. The tire friction eventually exploded and sent Hamlin spinning, although he was able to make it to the pit lane and stay in the lead lap. Hamlin had more contact later which damaged his splitter and finished 11th.
“We just didn’t have a car fast enough, I thought we were probably fifth at best, honestly, then two wrecks at the end,” Hamlin said. “This car is destroyed.”
Truex was then made after contact with Daniel Suarez that sent him hard to the wall.
Logano, who was already eighth in points, was the first of the Texas playoff drivers when his engine exploded with 34 laps to go.
“Now we know what we have to do in the next two weeks… we have to find a way to win,” said Logano, 43 points below the cut line.
Busch was the lone playoff contender near a massive back crash just 31 laps into the race, though he made minimal contact to the rear of the No.18 Toyota during the race. of his melee race. He was back on the pitch after serving a speeding penalty on the pit lane during the competition warning. He took more new tires as a precaution, then won the first stage.
“I mean we probably missed four or five points there at the end of the day, but we also missed four or five points on the stage. So that’s what we missed, “said Busch.” Certainly the 5’s and 24’s were class in the field again. You know, we’re just slow. “
Bubba Wallace was in the middle as he was three wide on the back stretch when he relaxed and went to the side, triggering that big early crash. NASCAR listed 12 cars involved, not counting Busch, when the competition warning restarted. The 12 cars were among the most involved in a single incident in Texas, which hosted its 41st Cup race since its debut in 1997 with a 13-car crash early in the race.
The mid-round run of eight in Kansas, where Logano was the winner last October as the first game of the round of eight. Eight of Kansas’ last nine races have been won by one of the remaining playoff contenders, with six of those drivers combining for those victories.
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