FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The first driver in NASCAR's championship four is the one everyone else was already expecting to race for the Cup title in the season finale.
Kyle Larson wasn't going to be so sure, even with all of those wins and his significant points lead, until it was a certainty.
“You know, (Kevin) Harvick had his issues last year and didn’t make the final four," Larson said. “That will always be on my mind.”
No such issues for Larson, who opened the round of eight in the playoffs Sunday with a dominating victory at Texas. It was the first opportunity for anyone to lock into one of the championship-contending spots.
There are now two races left, and seven drivers vying for the remaining three spots, before the season finale Nov. 7 in Phoenix.
Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are above the cutline going next weekend to Kansas, where Busch won earlier this year. Defending Cup champion Chase Elliott is fifth, ahead of Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano.
“I’ll never get comfortable. I mean, you can have an issue in the first stage and all that’s gone," Blaney said of being 17 points above the cutline. "You’ve just got to keep doing what you’re doing. I don’t think you can ever get comfortable unless you’re the 5 car (Larson). The next few races you just have to keep racing like you have.”
Larson led 256 of 334 laps at the 1 1/2-mile Texas track for his eighth win this season, and third in seven playoff races. He led the final 218 laps, staying in front through all of those restarts.
This has been quite a comeback season for Larson, the 29-year-old California native who wasn’t even racing in NASCAR at this time last year. He is in the championship four the first time, eight years after his Cup debut.
Larson was suspended by NASCAR and didn’t race again last year after using a racial slur during a livestream while in a virtual race when on-track events were on pause during the pandemic. That cost him almost every sponsor, his seat with Chip Ganassi Racing and nearly his career before Rick Hendrick signed him before this season.
Along with his eight Cup wins and 16 other top-10 finishes this season, Larson also won at Texas in June, in the $1 million, non-points All-Star race. He had also won in his previous All-Star race appearance, in 2019 while still with Ganassi, but missed last year’s big-money exhibition while suspended.
Already 42 points above the cutline before Sunday’s race, Larson said then that he wasn’t exactly comfortable with that. Like he did after the race, he made reference to Harvick, who last year went into the round of eight with an even bigger margin but didn't make the final four.
“It probably still would have been on my mind going to Kansas,” Larson said. “I just was more worried about like if you get in the wall or something like Denny or Truex, or get caught up in a wreck, stuff like that, which now we don’t have to worry about. So that’s good”
Three of the late restarts Sunday came after incidents involving Hamlin, Truex and Logano. Hamlin twice had contact in the closing laps, and managed to stay on the lead lap even after having to pit and finished 11th.
“All the late race restarts at the end get so wild and crazy and you have no idea what is going to happen, and who is going to get checked up and stuff like that,” Blaney said.
"It’s insane. I think we ended up gaining a point over the cut, somehow. ... It’s just a crazy day," Hamlin said. “The way these cars race where we are packed up for a couple laps, you just never know. It’s going to be the same way at Kansas.”
That is another 1 1/2-mile track, where Busch won in May. Eight of the last nine races in Kansas have been won by one of the seven remaining playoff contenders. Truex and Hamlin have both won twice in that span, with Blaney the only one of that group without a victory there.
Larson said he doesn't plan to race any differently at Kansas and Martinsville, looking to win stages and races to keep momentum going into Phoenix. With 2,267 laps led, he is also in reach of Jeff Gordon's record mark of 2,320 in a season since NASCAR went to a 36-race schedule in 2001.
“That would be really, really cool. ... I think somewhere in the back of my mind like it’s a goal. It’s not like something I am upset about if I don’t lead any laps in a race or anything, but once I am leading I want to stay in the lead to help catch that record or whatever,” he said. “Hopefully these next few weeks are a lot like today.”
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