The Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway had dramatic ups-and-downs all Sunday afternoon with the victorious exception of Kyle Larson, who absolutely dominated the race – leading 256 of 334 laps and holding off the field on seven different re-starts in the final 125 laps alone.
Larson’s win by .459-seconds over Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron was his series best – and career best - eighth of the season and 14th of his career. Most importantly, it punched his ticket into the Championship Four at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7 – the first time in the 29-year old Californian’s career he will get to race for the NASCAR Cup Series championship trophy.
"This is unreal," a smiling Larson said. "I knew we had a good shot to win today. Our car was amazing, probably the best 550-package, intermediate car we’ve had all year.
"This is so cool. And we get to race for a championship in a couple weeks. This is crazy."
With a two-lap shootout to settle the checkered flag, the end of the race was dramatic up front. For much of the day, it was disastrous just behind. A 12-car incident on Lap 32 eliminated nine cars early on.
Playoff drivers Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. all suffered late race problems that impacted the championship standings with only two races remaining now to decide which three drivers join Larson in that Championship race at Phoenix.
Logano’s No. 22 Team Penske Ford was sidelined after suffering a rare engine problem and both Hamlin and Truex were involved in collisions. Logano finished 30th – worst among the eight Playoff drivers. Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota soldiered on despite the heavy damage in two incidents and he finished 11th. Truex’s No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was unable to finish the race after a hard hit in Turn 4 following a collision with Daniel Suarez. Truex finished 25th.
All these incidents were part of rapid-fire caution periods in the final third on the race; 11 on the day plus an 11-minute red flag. And on each ensuing re-start – no matter which driver was directly behind him – Larson was able to pull away and hold the lead.
"I just got good pushes from behind me, really," said Larson, who also added a series best 16th stage win.
"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 going into [Turn] 1 and not have to fight off [Turn] 2.
“So thanks to William [Byron], Tyler [Reddick] and [Brad] Keselowski, anybody who was behind me, especially Brad on that last restart.”
Ironically, the only member of the Joe Gibbs Racing team not still Playoff-eligible, Christopher Bell, finished best among his teammates Sunday, taking third place just ahead of Penske Racing’s Keselowski and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick.
Penske driver Ryan Blaney, Hendrick Motorsports Chase Elliott, JGR’s Kyle Busch, Richard Childress’s Tyler Reddick and Trackhouse Racing’s Suarez rounded out the Top-10
"It’s all about the push and I think here at Texas the shortest lane kind of wins out because of the way the track separates going into Turn 1, the Axalta Chevy was fast all day just never got control [of the re-starts]," Byron said. "I think he [Larson] was definitely better than us the first stage and I was right there with him the rest of the time, but it was just clean air basically.
"Congrats to those guys, Kyle really deserves it. They’ve been awesome all year, flawless on pit road and on pit calls."
Despite all the drama, the Playoff picture remains largely the same as when the drivers started the race. Larson’s win locks him into the Championship Four. Blaney is second followed by Hamlin and Kyle Busch (who won Stage 1) among the top four positions.
Defending series champion Elliott is fifth, eight points behind Busch. Keselowski is sixth (-15) followed by Truex (-22) and Logano (-43).
"Just a bummer, what do you do, this is the first time we’ve blown a motor in a really long time," Logano said from the garage after retiring early.
"We have to move on," the 2018 series champion added. "It is what it is now. We can’t change it. Not many points today, so that is a bummer. We will be fighting from here."
The NASCAR Cup Series moves to Kansas Speedway for next Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Logano won the Playoff race there last year. Kyle Busch won at the track in May. And Hamlin and Logano lead all active drivers with three wins each at Kansas.