AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Kyle Larson won.
That was the expected result of NASCAR’s season-ending championship race, right?
Larson closed his comeback season in NASCAR with his first championship Sunday, where 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 a racing a car a year-and-a-half ago. To win a championship? Crazy!”
Larson needed a flawless final pit stop from his Hendrick Motorsports crew to get the No. 5 Chevrolet back on track ahead of his three title rivals. His 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’s been impossible to stop all season, and he drove off to his 10th Cup victory of the year.
“I did not think we were going to win and without that pit crew on that last stop, we would not be standing right here,” Larson said.
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.
Chase Elliott, the reigning champion and NASCAR’s most popular driver, led 94 laps but finished fourth.
Larson seemed to have tears in his eyes on his cooldown lap as he celebrated a career-defining moment he wasn’t sure would happen last year. He was fired four races into the season and lost nearly every sponsor for his use of a racial slur while racing online, and Larson retreated to his sprint car roots to rebuild his life.
He volunteered for multiple different grassroots organizations as Larson went on a personal journey to learn more about himself, as well as social justice issues. It was Rick Hendrick who decided to give him another chance and he hired Larson once NASCAR lifted his suspension.
Larson watched last year’s championship race from the competition compound on the Hendrick Mototsports’ campus in North Carolina. A year later, he gave Hendrick its 14th Cup title.