The most dominant driver in the NASCAR Cup Series will be racing for the championship.
Kyle Larson won Sunday’s Round of 8 opener at Texas Motor Speedway and became the first driver to clinch a spot in the Championship 4 finale on Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway.
That gives Larson and his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team two weeks to prepare for the title race. As for the other seven playoff drivers, they’ll look to win and advance either next week at Kansas Speedway or on Halloween at Martinsville Speedway.
Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, William Byron, finished runner-up. Christopher Bell followed in third. Playoff driver Brad Keselowski was fourth. Kevin Harvick completed the top five.
“I knew we had a good shot to win today and our car was amazing,” Larson told NBC Sports after the race. “That’s probably the best 550 (horsepower) package/intermediate car we’ve had all year.
“We get to go race for a championship in a few weeks. This is crazy.”
Sunday, Larson led a race-high 256 laps, including the final 218 laps of the race. But he still had to survive five restarts within the final 30 laps to claim his eighth points-paying win of 2021.
“I just got good pushes from behind me, really,” Larson told NBC Sports about those restarts. “I tried to stay patient on the throttle to keep them to my back bumper, and thankfully, I was able to just barely clear them every time off of (Turn) 1 and not have to fight them off of (Turn) 2.
“Thanks to William, Tyler, Brad Keselowski – anybody that was ever behind me, especially Brad there on that last restart.”
The late-race chaos began with 36 laps to go, when playoff driver Joey Logano lost the engine on his No. 22 Team Penske Ford.
On the ensuing restart with 30 laps to go, playoff driver Kyle Busch got into the back of Chris Buescher and sent him into a half-spin on the Turn 1 apron.
Buescher made the save, but further back, Anthony Alfredo had to check up and was then sent into the wall by another competitor. Once Alfredo’s car came to rest, an apparent fuel fire forced the Cup rookie to quickly exit and get away from the flames.
Following a short red flag for cleanup, the race restarted with 25 laps to go. Contact between playoff drivers Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin in the initial laps led to a tire failure and spin for Hamlin, bringing out another caution with 21 laps to go.
That set up another restart with 16 laps to go – and yet another problem for a playoff driver. This time, it was Martin Truex Jr., who wrecked in Turn 4 following possible contact with Daniel Suarez.
Following the next restart with nine laps to go, Hamlin again found trouble.
With seven laps to go, contact between Chase Briscoe and Buescher sent the latter spinning into Hamlin. Buescher slammed into the inside backstretch wall, while Hamlin was left with heavy front-end damage on his car.
The final restart came with two laps to go, but Larson was again up to the challenge. With Keselowski providing the aforementioned push from behind, Larson got out ahead with the lead and then pulled away to a .459-second win over Byron.
STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Busch
STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Larson
WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Byron, Bell and Harvick all posted top five runs after being eliminated from the playoffs last week … Tyler Reddick scored points in both stages on his way to a ninth-place finish … Daniel Suarez finished 10th to earn his first top 10 result since running seventh in June at Nashville Superspeedway.
WHO HAD A BAD RACE: On the restart at Lap 31, Bubba Wallace got loose in the middle of racing three-wide off Turn 2 and spun into the field. The ensuing crash involved 15 cars and eliminated eight from the race, including Wallace, Alex Bowman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Preece.
NOTABLE: Larson becomes the first Hendrick Motorsports driver to earn eight wins in a season since Jimmie Johnson earned 10 wins on his way to the 2007 Cup title.
NEXT: Sunday, Oct. 24 – Kansas Speedway, Race No. 2 in the Round of 8 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)