That was the expected result of NASCAR’s season-ending championship race, right?
Kyle Larson closed his comeback season in NASCAR with his first championship Sunday, as he capped his return from a nearly yearlong suspension with a title-winning victory at Phoenix Raceway.
“I can’t believe it,” Larson said, his voice quivering. “I didn’t even think I’d be racing a car a year and a half ago. To win a championship? Crazy!”
Larson led seven times for a race-high 108 laps but was running fourth, last among the title contenders, as Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin controlled the championship late in a pair of Toyotas.
Then a caution reset everything.
Because he won the pole Saturday in the qualifying, Larson had the first stall on pit road and the shortest sprint back onto the track of the four title contenders. He silently prayed for a flawless service call from his Hendrick Motorsports crew to get the No. 5 Chevrolet back on track ahead of his three title rivals.
Wow, did the No. 5 team deliver.
Larson’s crew performed its second-fastest stop of the season — a span that stretches 38 races — and Larson went from last among the final four to first.
Larson controlled the restart with 25 laps remaining, quickly cleared Martin Truex Jr., then held off several of Truex’s challenges. There was no stopping Larson, just as he has been impossible to stop all season, and he drove off to his 10th Cup victory of the year.
He beat Truex to the finish line by an easy .398 seconds.
“There were so many points in this race where I did not think we were going to win,” Larson said. “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’m just blessed to be a part of this group. Every single man or person, man and woman at Hendrick Motorsports, this win is for all of us, and every one of you. This is unbelievable. I’m speechless.”
Truex, the 2017 champion, finished second and was followed by Denny Hamlin, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate. Hamlin is 0-for-5 in championship finales and was the only driver among the final four contenders who did not lead a lap Sunday.