For the second consecutive season, a Rick Hendrick driver has won the NASCAR Cup Series championship with a win in Phoenix. Kyle Larson capped off a spectacular 2021 racing season by earning his 10th Cup victory and his first series championship. It is the 14th title for Hendrick Motorsports.
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. A late caution reset everything, and a quick pit stop from his team got him back at the front of the field for the closing laps. In fact, it was the second-fastest pit stop of the entire season for the No. 5 crew.
Larson beat Martin Truex Jr to the finish line by 0.398 seconds. “I can’t believe it,” Larson said. “I didn’t even think I’d be racing a car a year and a half ago. To win a championship? Crazy! 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.”
Denny Hamlin finished 3rd in the race, and in the final standings. Ryan Blaney was the only non-championship driver to finish inside the top five with reigning series champ Chase Elliott just behind him. Rounding out the top ten were Aric Almirola, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, and Brad Keselowski, who made his final start with Team Penske on Sunday.
Larson is one of just 17 drivers to win at least eight races in a season, joining a host of NASCAR Hall of Famers to do so. In fact, the 29-year old more than doubled his career wins total this season, as he entered 2021 with just six career victories. He won five of the ten playoff races and tied Tony Stewart for most wins in a single playoff season. He also broke Jeff Gordon’s 20-year record of most laps led in a single season.
Truex has finished second in the championship standings three times in the four seasons since his 2017 title. “Ultimately, we needed to beat him off pit road. It’s unfortunate, but we win and lose as a team,” the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. “That’s three times we’ve been second, and that sucks. Second hurts, I’m not going to lie, especially with the car we had and the job the guys did.”
Hamlin came up short once again, but the three-time Daytona 500 winner was congratulatory after the race. “Any time you can win ten races in a year, you’re absolutely a deserving champion,” Hamlin said. “They did a great job on the last pit stop and got him out there, and he just set sail after that. Proud of my team. Just a really good year. A really, really good year, and things just didn’t pan out.”
Elliott led 94 laps but was not able to become the second repeat champion since Gordon in 1998. “I was really proud of our group. I thought we brought a really good car, just didn’t work out,” Elliott said. “Proud of our team, a lot to build on, and also congrats to Kyle. Very, very deserving champions, and glad to see Kyle have success.”
Sunday’s victory was the 280th for Hendrick Motorsports, the winningest team in NASCAR history. Their 14th title in 27 years also contributed to the manufacturer’s championship for Chevrolet, who had already clinched it heading into this weekend.
After such a successful 2021 season in so many different types of vehicles and racing series, the one question that kept popping up post race revolved around the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
“I think just thinking about the journey and how tough of a road it’s been to get to this point for so long, but especially the last year and a half, and too,” Larson said. “I think just the atmosphere, I haven’t felt an atmosphere like this maybe ever. With the pressure of this race and everything that was on the line, to win this championship — every one of these fans made me feel it. I was trying to tell myself to just chill out, stop tearing up. I make fun of my dad all the time for crying, and I’m worse than he is.”
“It’s just so cool. So cool. So thankful. Thank you to Rick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon. We have so many people from Hendrickcars.com here, Hendrick Motorsports. This is just awesome, an awesome day.” All four Hendrick drivers will return to the team next season, as NASCAR enters its Next Gen era.