OPINION: Practically untouchable

Gavin Baker/Motorsport Images

OPINION: Practically untouchable

Insights & Analysis

OPINION: Practically untouchable

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Kyle Larson made winning in the NASCAR Cup Series look easy yet again with another dominant mile-and-a-half performance on Sunday afternoon.

This time he conquered Texas Motor Speedway with a stage win, and race-high 256 of 334 laps led. Larson looked bulletproof and on a different playing field than the rest of the competition, just as he has all season. Not only was it the second consecutive win for the No. 5 team, but the eighth of the season and third in seven postseason races for Larson, crew chief Cliff Daniels and the gang.

The most important post-race note, though, was this win clinches Larson his first appearance in the title race next month at Phoenix Raceway.

“This is unreal,” Larson told NBC on the frontstretch.

It was of no surprise. Untouchable practically everywhere, that has been especially true of Larson at the intermediate facilities. Texas was Larson’s fourth victory on a mile-and-a-half track this season, and he’s closing in on potentially setting a new record for most laps led in a single season since the NASCAR schedule moved to 36 races.

The mark is 2,360, set by Jeff Gordon. Larson sits at 2,267 laps led with three races to go.

Sunday was less about what Larson did on track and more about what it means. It’s only fitting that he’s the first driver locked into the Championship 4, considering he’s been the driver all year.

The dominator. The headline maker. The comeback story. The clear leader of the pack.

“It’s awesome,” Larson said of clinching a title spot. “We had a good points lead or whatever from the cutoff going into it, but still. [Kevin] Harvick had his issues last year and didn’t make the final four. That will always be on my mind.

“We had a fast, fast car (Sunday), and we had a good couple of stages, so even if I didn’t come out with the lead or the win or whatever, I wanted to play it smart and take what I could get. I got good shots from behind me every restart and allowed me to get clear into (Turn) 1 every time and then do some blocking for a few laps. Fine on all those restarts, and we had a great race car to allow me to be aggressive with the blocks, and fast, too, to stay out in front of William [Byron].”

While other race teams and manufacturers internally battled whether to bring Larson back after being suspended from the sport and fired by Chip Ganassi for using a racial slur, Rick Hendrick didn’t hesitate. Despite the lack of Chevrolet backing for the car, the Hall of Fame team owner with 13 championships wanted Larson in his stable to give him another contender to chase the next trophy.

Larson continued his season-long dominance at Texas, gaining on the laps led record but more importantly, clinching a spot in the Championship 4 at Phoenix next month. John K Harrelson/Motorsport Images

Larson clinched his championship spot less than one year from Hendrick Motorsports announcing his signing.

Announced on Oct. 28, 2020, Hendrick, in addition to calling Larson “one of the most talented race car drivers in the world,” said he had championship-level ability. For his part, Larson acknowledged he had a lot to prove on and off the racetrack.

What Larson’s done has amounted to a career year and has far and away surpassed all his previous seasons. With weeks to spare, career highs in single-season laps led, top 10s, top fives, and wins have been set.

Much of what Larson’s accomplished in his first year with Hendrick has also been for the first time in his Cup Series career. There was the first time winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May, and then a victory a week later at Sonoma was not only Larson’s first on a road course but the first time he’s gone back-to-back.

Until this year, Larson had never won the regular-season title or been the number one seed in the playoffs, and he’d also never advanced as far as the Championship 4.

Larson’s on-track redemption tour is complete just by qualifying for the championship race. After all, most would tell you that NASCAR season is split into two in the era of the playoffs — the first 35 races and the winner-take-all title race. So, for Larson, mission accomplished in coming back to prove what he’s capable of and living up the long-stated hype from motorsports pundits of what he’d do in the right situation.

Whatever happens next is a bonus.

“I knew we had a shot to win (at Texas), and our car was amazing,” said Larson. “That’s probably the best 550 package intermediate car we’ve had all year. … We get to go race for a championship in a few weeks. This is crazy.”

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